Longboat Key News columnist Tom Burgum dies after life of of love, politics and vitriol

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Splinter. Rusty nail. Sandspur. 

Erudite. Inciting. Curmudgeon.

Loyal. Loving. Insightful.

All of these words and for some a few expletives could describe Tom Burgum — especially Tom Burgum the Longboat Key News columnist.

Burgum wrote weekly for more than 10 years and his work can best be described like taking a machinegun across the landscape of India — he slaughtered all of the sacred cows.

He railed against global warming and American energy policy. He whacked at windmills and ethanol as sustainable energy. He tortured the personages of Hillary Clinton, President Obama, Al Gore and countless others into piñatas that burst wide open week after week. He died Friday with his wife and family at his side.

Burgum loved to get a reaction. Very often an avalanche of comments would surface beneath his columns online and letters would pour in begging the paper to stop the fountain of his opinion and commentary.

And the opposite was true. He had devotees ranging from rational conservatives to radical nut jobs naming him as the bearer of truth and honesty. Tom always preferred smart opponents to sycophants.

He had many friends at the Longboat Key Tennis Center. And those friends came years after a four-decade career working with lobbyists, politicians and Washington, DC personalities.

Tom was surrounded by love, especially from his wife of 41 years, Mary Cohen, and his three sons and six grandchildren.

Tom was also loved by those close enough to enjoy the kind of meaningful and informed discussions that he savored. Years of reading, politics and from-the-street anecdotes swirled in and around and through Burgum while he smiled, cracked jokes and took life hand in hand with his favorite Punch cigar.

Tom Burgum passed away at about 2:30 a.m. on March 18 exactly where he wanted to be, with Mary. His illness was brief and intractable and Tom was determined to spend each precious and final moment with his wife and with his family and friends.


A loving dichotomy…

Burgum was not simple; he was a dichotomy.

The Tom Burgum many became friends with, the Tom Burgum who confided the personal twists and potholes of his life turned out to be one of the best listeners and one of those rare and gentle souls who made such an impression that words can only outline the strength of his character. It was fascinating to watch how such a gentle and caring person came in tandem with an equally feisty wit and vitriol.

When the life of someone Tom cared about was in one of its challenging moments, Tom not only listened and took everything in, he listened more. He counseled and coached and called and checked. The quality of his listening, his attentiveness to what somone else was going through was a quality of someone who went far beyond simply being a talented writer — Tom reflected the very fundamentals of true friendship. He had that rare ability to pay attention and care deeply. In that regard, what drove him personally served him well in writing and politics.


From Christ, to the Holocaust to Trump

Like all long and good marriages — to know Tom was to know his wife, Mary.

More than 10 years ago, Mary helped Longboat Key News in its fledgling first year. That means she helped with everything. And that is Mary. Mary takes things on with love, determination and loyalty. You could see that in her marriage to Tom. And in her inimitable way, she saw the young paper needed and wanted columnists and writers and she realized Tom had plenty to say and could only play so much tennis.

Tom capitulated to Mary’s suggestions and he wrote weekly for more than 10 years. He wrote more than 500 columns on everything from the birth of Judaism, the meaning of Christ to the Holocaust to Sarah Palin to Trump and Clinton and every issue in between. That is a lot of territory.

Tom relished reader reaction. He would call me at Longboat Key News and say, “Steve any reaction? This should piss them off!”

Tom was an entertaining and well-read pot stirrer. He attacked his subjects and topics with vitriol, but when readers wrote back attacking him, he would wax self-deprecating. Some readers would write things like, “ Please undo Burgum’s lobotomy.” Or, they would send reams of scientific data establishing global warming and ask Burgum to recant. Or, they would write a dull rebuttal. Tom savored reaction from every corner and quarter. He did not want to go unnoticed and at that he was eminently successful.


No love of Hillary

Tom had his minor addictions or pleasures as they could be called. He was picky about his coffee beans and loved Punch cigars. In fact, he measured his life out with Cigars. Give Tom a cigar and he could talk through his more than 40-year career in politics as a lobbyist and as an attorney. He knew everyone in Washington. His Clinton stories were priceless. His reasons for a palpable distaste for Hillary was always a ready topic.

Readers might say it is arguable, but Burgum was a lifelong Democrat. His views and beliefs were shaped by history, and he cautioned people not to believe everything they read.

“Most [political columnists] are as worthless as a kite in a hurricane. They make up their own facts, especially when you get into the history of stuff — that stuff was happening in Washington when I was there,” Burgum once said.


Never got personal…

Longboater Paul Skversky was one of Tom’s tennis friends. But Skversky was much more. Tom and Paul spent every Sunday for more than the past 10 years talking, debating and arguing history, philosophy and current events.

Skversky said debating with Burgum was always insightful, colorful and engaging. He added that it was also never personal.

“I watched him turn to the dark side from moderate Democrat to fascist,” Skversky jokes. “We always agreed on the facts but not on the opinion.”

Skversky spent a lifetime reading and teaching history and his friendship with Burgum was so natural and spontaneous that it reminded him of the friends one had before careers and family and the mandates of life take over.

And when describing Burgum, Paul would talk about Tom’s opinions and sharp wit and then interject — “He is one of the closest friends I have ever had.” Then a few minutes later Skversky said, “Tom has such a beautiful family.” And then, “Tom is one of the funniest characters you could ever meet.”


Anatomy of marriage

Perhaps one of Tom’s most loved and most read columns was his ode to his forgetfulness and tangentially to the love of his life, Mary Cohen. That piece is entitled “51 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

Tom recounts how he and Mary were driving from Florida to Washington, DC and Mary was napping in the back seat of the car. When Tom stopped for fuel, she used the restroom unbeknownst to Tom and he drove off leaving her in the restroom. Tom drove and drove for hours oblivious to Mary’s absence. He discovered her absence only after calling his son along the way who pointed out his error. The column became a self-deprecating metaphor.

“Mary respected Tom’s intelligence, but Tom always insisted he married far above his station,” Skversky said.

Those close to Tom and Mary saw their love manifest continually. Tom and Mary would argue and rant like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” only to display their feelings for the other like a confessional. They could not help it as annoying as they sometimes were with each other, their love and respect was ever present.

In the last month of Tom’s life as his strength was waning, Mary walked to the back patio where I was talking with Tom. He was going on about how he thought the current national politics would play out.

Mary looked intently at Tom and said, “Listen, I found that chair you were looking at buying but instead of $2,000, I found one for $500 and it simply is something we need to have.”

Tom listened intently and looked at Mary. He said in a calm and thoughtful voice, “Well, in that case, Mary, I think you should buy it.”

Mary laughed loudly and said, “Are you serious? I bought the thing. Do you really think I came back here to ask permission? Yes, your honor, may we proceed with the purchase of said chair?”

Tom laughed heartily and said, “It just goes to show you how delusional I am to believe after 40 years of marriage I have some modicum of having anything to do with what goes on around here.”

Tom laughed and kept talking politics. Mary laughed and said the chair was being delivered Tuesday.


Mad Dog Attorney

Before Tom and Mary moved off the Key a few years ago they owned a condo at Banyan Bay next to the Centre Shops.

Neighbor, retired attorney and long-time friend Dick Hershatter remembers Tom’s unique style of diplomacy and taking charge.

Burgum was president for several years of the Banyan Bay homeowner association and oversaw several contracting jobs on behalf of the association. Whenever the contractors would slow their pace, Burgum would threaten and intimate that “Mad Dog Hershatter” would soon be coming down from Connecticut and tell the contractor that “Mad Dog” is one litigious and fiery Attorney.

Burgum got the contractors worried about this legendary “Mad Dog Hershatter” who he successfully used as a foil while smoking a cigar watching the work get done.

Hershatter credits Burgum as his mentor in writing columns for Longboat Key News.

“He is responsible for me writing and encouraging me,” said Hershatter who has written hundreds of columns as well.

“Tom loved the challenge of writing and loved the challenge of stirring things up. He had the most incredible command of the political. He knew everything about everyone in Washington. It may be a cliché to say a light went out with Tom passing, but in this case it is a floodlight,” said Hershatter.


Pecking at dirt in Dakota…

Burgum was born in Bismarck, N.D. and as a young man served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army from 1955-1957 in peacetime Berlin, Germany.

“The greatest assignment in the history of being in the Army,” he would say with a chuckle.

Burgum earned a degree from Jamestown College in Jamestown, N.D., and law degree from the University of North Dakota-Grand Forks. His father was very political, a Methodist minister and a lawyer, who worked his way through law school to became the attorney general of North Dakota.

Burgum got his first taste of politics working for the youngest democrat in North Dakota. For some four years, Burgum traveled around the state recruiting democratic county chairman and members.

“It was just organizing in those days…in a VW. I was one of the chickens out in the farmyard pecking dirt,” he recounted.

Burgum practiced law for six years in North Dakota. The first three years were spent defending pro bono clients, mostly from a nearby Indian Reservation.

“Honest John Belgard was charged with so many crimes, it almost seemed like I went to law school to do one thing — defend Honest John Belgard. But we never lost and he never went to jail, which was kind of a miracle because his arrest record was three miles long,” Burgum would joke.


They did not used to hate each other…

Burgum was 36 years old when he arrived in Washington, D.C. It was the early 1970s and Burgum worked for North Dakota Sen. Quentin Burdick as the staff director for the Bankruptcy Reform Committee in the U.S. Senate. He also served on both the Judiciary Committee and the Appropriations Committee for seven years.

Burgum remembers a friendlier Washington.

“You had people who disagreed, but they didn’t hate each other…they weren’t busy telling people that the others were scum-suckers,” said Burgum.

Burgum was appointed in 1980 to deputy under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development, serving one year under President Jimmy Carter. “The longer the title, the less important you are,” he would say.

Burgum and a couple Republican friends later formed a lobbying firm serving governmental agencies and environmental.

It was in Reston, Virginia that Burgum met and married Mary Cohen.  He has three grown boys, John, James and Thomas from a previous marriage, and six grandchildren. In the 1980s Tom and Mary bought on Longboat Key and soon started their Longboat Key chapter of life.


Final consolation

Perhaps the consolation is that Tom’s death came quickly and his mental acuity was with him through his final days. For those who looked forward to his writing and work, he will be missed.

For his wife Mary, his family and for the friends that were lucky enough to know Tom personally, a void has been created that can only be filled with memories and the lingering effect his life and his words had upon us.

And yet somehow if Tom’s voice could be conjured to comment on his own passing, he might say, “It could be far worse — if I went on living forever, nobody would stop and think all these great things about me.”

Goodbye, Tom.


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7 Responses for “Longboat Key News columnist Tom Burgum dies after life of of love, politics and vitriol”

  1. Janie Diehl says:

    I worked with Tom when he was with the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in USDA where he served as a Special Assistant. I shared an office with his Secretary. I remember him as a really nice person and fun to be around. I remember he was an avid Cleveland Indians fan and when I heard they would be in the World Series this year, Tom is the first person I thought of. It has been many years since we worked together but I decided to see if I could find him and was very sad that this article is the first that came up when I did a search. My sincere sympathy to Mary and his family. I have nothing but fond memories of Tom. Janie Diehl

  2. Phill Scott says:

    That was a great tribute to a wonderfully funny and clever man.

  3. Geri Gaginis says:

    Tom and I worked together in Senator Burdick’s office, and he was then as you have described him in your writings today. Tom loved to shock, tell stories, and had an especially irreverent sense of humor.
    Mostly though, Tom was a good sport and fun to have around. Over the years I have thought of Tom and Mary often and wondered how they were making out. I am happy to learn Tom found his niche in life, and it fit perfectly.

    My condolences to Mary and the family.

  4. Ross P. Alander says:

    Tom and I disagreed on just about everything but I enjoyed our exchanges:). Peace Tom

  5. ghostrider says:


  6. Jill Saum says:

    Tom Burgum was one of the funniest, fine men I have had the privilege to have known for 40 plus years.
    Tom brought Mary and his wonderful children into my families experience and we have been the richer for having known them. Life is a little less shiny without him. I will miss him dearly. No more apple pie wars! Love you bunches Tom!

  7. Bartley O'Hara says:

    Tom did so much with and for so many, it feels as if he lived many lives.

    He was truly expert in many disciplines–Legislation, History and Science–but he always managed to keep his insights in perspective and informed them with charity & humor

    A great person & marvelous friend

    Peace upon honor

    Probably going to be some long days ahead; but remember our prayers

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