Retired Navy master chief and former Navy Times journalist John Burlage passed away in Beeville, Texas, on July 23.
Burlage is remembered fondly for the 18 years he spent covering personnel for Navy Times and his prior 25 years of uniformed service as a journalist in the Navy, where he retired as the command master chief for the office of the Navy chief of information.
Those who knew Burlage recalled how he never stopped working on behalf of sailors, retiring from the Navy on a Friday and beginning at Navy Times the following Monday.
“Burlage was a true classic, old school throwback, dogged reporter. He loved the Navy, loved reporting, loved sailors, loved people, and loved getting to the bottom of a story,” said Christopher Cavas, the managing editor of Navy Times when Burlage retired.
The personnel beat that Burlage covered focused on issues affecting the lives of sailors, a duty his Navy experience was no doubt an asset in. Cavas said no one understood the beat better than Burlage.
“That is the stuff of being in the Navy. It’s not about major events, it’s about the hardcore stuff of being in the service. And that’s what John covered, and he did it peerlessly,” Cavas said.
Those who knew him also said that Burlage was always willing to lend a hand to new employees.
Tobias Naegele, the longtime chief editor at Military Times and Defense News, said he owes much of his success to Burlage’s readiness to help. When Naegele began his career at Military Times as the editor of Navy Times, Burlage, who had also applied for the position, had already been working there for years.
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“He had applied for the job to be the editor of Navy Times and instead this young kid came in, and he could have really given me a hard time — there was an awful lot I didn’t know,” Naegele said. But Burlage wasn’t upset. Instead, he showed Naegele the ropes.
“He taught me what it meant to think like a sailor,” said Naegele. “John Burlage knew it was all about them.”
Because of his extensive knowledge of the issues that affected the lives of sailors, Naegele said, the agenda Burlage set for the week shaped the agenda of the Navy as well, calling attention to key issues.
Upon his retirement from Navy Times in October 2002, Burlage was awarded the Navy’s second-highest civilian award, the Navy Superior Public Service Medal, by Adm. Vern Clark, then-chief of naval operations.
His successful military career and coverage of issues relevant to sailors made him well-known, even famous, in the Navy. Those who knew Burlage referred to him as a legend.
“I, like many of my peers, had the privilege — and I say that word again, privilege — of working with John. He was an incredible journalist,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Jurkowsky, former Navy chief of information, in a letter mourning Burlage’s passing.
Mark Faram, a former reporter at Navy Times, was mentored by Burlage and eventually stepped into his role.
“He was able to do things that other reporters, you know, weren’t,” said Faram. The first piece of advice Burlage gave him was that “you’d better be able to ask the admirals the tough questions.”
And that’s just what Burlage did. His friends and coworkers recalled how he always knew just when to apply pressure or ease back and lend a helping hand.
“He was always there if you needed to lean on him,” Faram said. “He was an amazing guy.”
Burlage’s wife Jan, of more than 62 years, told Cavas that her husband passed due to a series of health issues that had worsened in recent months. His death is not believed to be related to COVID-19.
Burlage died just three days before his 81st birthday.
About Harm Venhuizen
Harm Venhuizen is an editorial intern at Military Times. He is studying political science and philosophy at Calvin University, where he’s also in the Army ROTC program.