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Susan Burgess was no saint, and neither are we 

The late Susan Burgess was a flesh-and-blood human being, which automatically means that she was complicated, at times self-contradictory, both generous and self-serving, funny and fearful, like most of us. That isn't the message we normally send each other when someone in a leadership position passes away — and it's certainly not the way local media treated the death of the city councilwoman/mayor pro tem last week. Suddenly, the energetic, down-to-earth woman whose passion about some issues was so intense that it sometimes seemed visceral, was swapped out for a more angelic model. To listen to TV reports, fellow pols and well-wishers, you'd have thought Burgess was a saint who never did a thing in her life that wasn't dedicated to public service, family and the good of all mankind forever and ever amen.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, as the saying goes; that's just how most people behave in the immediate aftermath of a death, whether it be the demise of an international star like Michael Jackson, a city councilwoman, or, for that matter, a neighbor or member of our own family. It's a laudable, empathetic impulse that leads us to treat the recently departed as future candidates for sainthood, so don't get me wrong, I'm not criticizing last week's plaudits for Burgess. I guess I just wish that people, and people's lives, were more appreciated for their complexity, for the nuances of their thought and behavior -- in other words, for their humanness.

The first time I met Susan Burgess in person was in 2004, even though I had spoken to her on the phone numerous times for newspaper stories. In the hot summer of 2004, Burgess had just returned from the Democratic national convention, and she was one of several local officeholders who attended the Creative Loafing Best of Charlotte party. The event's theme that year was elections, and standing at one end of the humongous room were an enormous replica of an elephant and a merely life-size replica of a donkey.

I was the paper's editor then, and I was standing in a small group making chitchat when Burgess came walking up quickly, shook my hand, told me who she was, looked me in the eye and, smiling, said, "I didn't think Creative Loafing was a Republican newspaper."

"Why do you say that?" I stammered.

"Well, I'm just wondering why you have such a gigantic elephant over there, and just a regular-sized donkey. That doesn't seem fair," Burgess said, still smiling away.

Before I could come up with an answer, or even shrug, Sue switched gears, moved in a few inches closer and, lowering her voice a bit, asked, "Do you know how can you tell that Democrats have better sex lives than Republicans?"

"I give up," I offered.

"How many times have you heard someone say they were looking for a piece of elephant?"

Again, I had never met Burgess in person before. I laughed out loud, as much at her chutzpah and energy as at the joke. A couple of minutes later, she moved on to another group of folks and, I heard later, told them the same joke.

That's what I mean by her humanness. She could excite or infuriate fans and foes with her political positions, but she could tell a bawdy joke, too. Too many times -- make that way too many times -- speaking with a politician is like talking to a cardboard cutout with a tape recorder hidden behind its head. Not Burgess; she was lots of things at times -- inspiring, silly, enthusiastic, ridiculous, highly effective and mediocre -- but she was never a cardboard-cutout politician.

Her public and private lives often melded, which can be good or bad depending on the circumstances. In 1997, she let everyone know she had decided to quit the school board while sitting in her hot tub with a glass of wine, and that her decision had left her "feeling at peace." Lots of people kidded her about that, including this writer, who wrote at the time, "Sue, if you were immersed in hot water, drinking alcohol, that feeling of peace you mentioned is probably what's called being drunk." She called me about the comment, and we both ended up laughing about it. You wouldn't get that reaction from most area pols, believe me. Recently, she made her final city council appearance and, again melding the political and personal, asked that her son Jason be appointed to fill out the rest of her term. It was a terrible idea, bypassing the normal process of naming a replacement, but it proves what I'm saying: she was fully human and capable of mistakes like anyone else.

In this pro-business, fairly conservative city, Burgess was a liberal, supporting things like affordable housing and the environment. Even conservatives who fought her on council, or those who wished she would tack more to the left, recognized her as a dedicated public servant who lived what she believed. What she wasn't, though, was a saint, and that's fine. Saints are few and far between. Burgess, on the other hand, was down to earth with the rest of us, providing a glimpse into how fascinating humans can be when they live their lives with passion and energy, for good or ill, in all their complexity.

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