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At 86, Burroughs Keeps Eye on County He Helped Shape

When Walter Burroughs was asked recently whether he came to work every day, he was astonished at the question.

“The work wouldn’t get done,” he said with impeccable logic, “if I didn’t do it.”

Walter Burroughs, a county original since the early 1940s, will be 87 in August.

During his four decades in the county, Burroughs has been a newspaper publisher (Orange Coast Daily Pilot), management consultant (Orion Management Corp.), business executive (Western World Medical Foundation), social benefactor (Childrens Hospital of Orange County), and general mover and shaker in creating the UC Irvine campus.

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Today, he can be found daily in a tiny, wood-frame office building tucked behind a row of stores in a Costa Mesa shopping center. He sits in an open bullpen area, his cane leaning against his desk and his blue porkpie hat tossed carelessly on a nearby table. His official mission is tending the assets of the W.T. Jefferson Testamentary Trust Fund.

His unofficial mission is keeping a benevolent eye on the county in case his services might be required somewhere. He may be a little slower getting into the game, and he may have lost something off his fastball, but he’ll be ready.

He has been ready ever since he made his first journalistic splash in Seattle in 1923. He was a junior at the University of Washington then, working for the student newspaper and moonlighting on a local weekly called the Town Crier when President Warren G. Harding came to town. The President had been visiting Alaska and was on his way to San Francisco. He was ill when he arrived--so ill that two weeks later he died in San Francisco. But the Seattle Times greeted him with a blistering front-page editorial, written by its publisher, Col. Edward Blecher.

The editorial so angered student Burroughs that he wrote an equally blistering answer, attacking the newspaper and calling Seattle a “city of shame.” He didn’t think that he should publish it in the Town Crier without the approval of his owner, who was out of town, so Burroughs sent the editorial to the competing Seattle Star, which published it on the front page under Burroughs’ name.

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He was thus officially launched. “It made me famous for a while,” he recalled laconically.

His entrance into student journalism was equally fortuitous. He possessed the ability to center a football in a perfect spiral, so his fraternity brothers urged him to go out for the team. But Burroughs had also been assigned to room with an oddball named Max Miller who would later write “I Cover the Waterfront.” Miller edited the campus literary magazine and persuaded Burroughs to throw in with him rather than get his brains scrambled on a football field. Burroughs did--and from such accidental pairings are careers made.

Burroughs paid for part of his education by taking advanced military training in the Reserve Officers Training Corps. When he finished college, he applied for active duty in the Marine Corps. He was accepted in spite of corrected vision because of spectacular scores on the firing range.

He had spent his $600 uniform allowance and been sent to Philadelphia for training before he was given another physical and ordered home.

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Handed that verdict, he wired the Marine Corps commandant for an exception and got a personal reply saying that retaining him was “regretfully beyond my authority . . . and I regret this even more than you.”

The incident was typical of Burroughs’ lifelong determination to take on bureaucracy whenever it got in his way. “I won some and I lost some,” he said.

After his aborted military career, he worked for two years as a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before taking a job as director of campus publications at UC Berkeley.

When he discovered that he had been brought in as a kind of glorified censor of student writings, he quit, insisting that “part of student life is for them to learn how to be responsible for their own actions.” When he repeated that to higher authorities at Berkeley, Burroughs was told, “You’re just the man we need,” and a six-month job turned into three-year stint.

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Does Burroughs still believe that way, in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting administrative overview of student publications?

“I don’t always agree with the Supreme Court,” he said. “I feel strongly that student organizations should be in control of their own publications. That’s part of their job.”

He returned to Seattle as manager of a rotogravure plant, but only after making sure that its principal customer, the Seattle Times publisher he had attacked, would do business with him.

“I called the Colonel,” he said, “and the old man laughed at the question. He told me if I’d forgive him, he’d forgive me.”

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Later, his rotogravure experience got Burroughs back to California to stay. He joined the H.S. Crocker Printing firm in San Francisco and was sent to Los Angeles to run their plant when they took over a local printer called Union Lithograph. Burroughs spent 10 years there, during which time he founded Bantam Books.

He also met a wealthy landowner and advertising executive named W.T. Jefferson, who owned the building in which Union set up shop. Burroughs thought the rent was too high and told Jefferson so. Jefferson didn’t cut the rent, but he so admired the spunk of the young man who took him on that it started a lifetime friendship.

In 1942, Burroughs, a reserve officer, was called into the Army with the rank of major. He spent the next three years in ordnance procurement in San Francisco and Ft. Douglas, Utah, coming out a lieutenant colonel after a brief stint as a brevet colonel when he was sent to straighten out racial problems at a troubled base (he had built a reputation for requiring defense contractors to hire black workers).

He solved the problem simply: “There were all-white officers commanding all-black troops, and I just relieved the officers and replaced them with black noncoms.”

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He discovered Orange County after World War II quite by accident. His wife, Hazel, had sold their Los Angeles home and moved to San Francisco with their daughter, Toni, during the war. When Burroughs went back to work in Los Angeles after the war, no housing was available, so he asked Jefferson for help.

Jefferson offered Burroughs a Hollywood apartment on one condition: that he spend weekends as a companion to the old man in his Corona del Mar home. Within a few months, Jefferson urged Burroughs to buy Costa Mesa’s Globe-Herald newspaper, and Burroughs has been booked ever since on the Orange Coast--a term he said he coined.

When he bought the Globe-Herald in 1948, the paper had a circulation “of about 500--I think.” When he sold it 15 years later, the circulation was 40,000 and the paper had become a strong influence in the community.

The name was changed to the Orange Coast Daily Pilot a few years into the Burroughs regime, shortly after Burroughs made a trip to Washington to urge Congress--successfully--not to force a change in the flight patterns at El Toro to accommodate the demands of Leisure World’s developers. A grateful admiral who owned a failing weekly paper called the Pilot donated the name to Burroughs.

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As publisher of the Pilot, Burroughs became involved deeply in local affairs. He is best known for his part in bringing a campus of the University of California to the county. There are a lot of conflicting versions of how this came about, but Burroughs remembered it this way:

Then-UC president “Clark Kerr and I belonged to the same club in San Francisco. When the university was looking for new campus sites in the late 1950s, I suggested this area. We’d tried to get a Cal State campus and had lost out to Fullerton, but Kerr seemed interested and put me in touch with William Periera, who was studying possible sites.

“We talked several times, and then I got a call from Joan Irvine’s attorney. He said she wanted this to happen too but was having trouble with her board of directors and needed help. He gave me her phone number, and I called her, and we put together the group that was finally successful in swaying the Irvine Co. board and getting the campus to locate here.

“In my opinion, Joan Irvine has never been given the credit she deserved.”

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In 1964, when his newspaper was a strong and prosperous voice in the community, Burroughs was told that he had a cancer that required immediate surgery. Although the surgery was successful, Burroughs said he was convinced that the condition would recur and didn’t want to saddle his heirs with the considerable debt run up by the paper in its expansion process. So in 1965, he sold the Pilot.

“I was with my doctor when the call came through confirming the sale,” Burroughs recalled. “He told me I should have asked him first, that the surgery was definitive and the trouble wouldn’t recur. He was right, but it was too late.”

In the two decades since Burroughs sold the paper (he was board chairman for three more years), Burroughs--although already of retirement age--involved himself in a series of county enterprises ranging from the start-up of TV Channel 56 to the Western World Medical Foundation, whose application (in partnership with Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian) to build in Irvine precipitated the fight over whether a teaching hospital should be built on the UC campus.

Burroughs’ first wife died in 1970. He married the editor of the Pilot’s Weekender section, Lucy Bell, two years later. Burroughs’ daughter, Toni, (now Mrs. Philip Doane) lives nearby on Balboa Island. Burroughs has three grandsons (the oldest, Timothy, is 22) but no great-grandchildren yet.

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Throughout these activities, the one constant for Burroughs was administering the Jefferson Trust Fund as provided in the will of W.T. Jefferson, who died in 1955.

That fills his work time today and takes him out of the house daily. “He told me,” Lucy Burroughs said, “that he married me for better or for worse--but not for lunch.”


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