NewsPub Notes

Remembering Charlie Burch, a Banker With Vision Whose Work Lives On

At one point back in the past, during the fairly early days of the weekly newspaper the Athens Observer, the Oconee Enterprise came up for sale. It was owned by a group of Oconee County business people who had been trying to keep it going, but they finally came to the conclusion that it was more trouble than it was worth, since none of them had experience with newspapers. Since we (Chuck Searcy, Don Nelson, Chatham Murray and I) owned the Observer, The Oconee folks asked us if we wanted to buy the Enterprise. Chuck was always looking for new worlds to conquer, so he was immediately enthusiastic, though he had no idea where we would get the $40,000 asking price. The rest of us reluctantly went along, and having no assets but the yet-to-break-even Observer, we saw that we would have to borrow the money.

We straggled into First National Bank and asked to see a loan officer. That’s when we first met Charlie Burch, who died last week, having just turned 94. Charlie had grown up in Athens—Barrow School, Childs Street School, Athens High and UGA. He was an athlete—an avid, lifelong tennis player among a group of friends—and as firmly ensconced in the Athens establishment as a native-born banker with a wide range of civic, business and social connections could be. He had good reason to look askance at us and immediately assume that we were not the kind of people to approve for a loan. Seeing Charlie there in his coat and tie behind his big desk, we didn’t have a lot of confidence that we would get a loan, especially after he started off by telling us he wasn’t familiar with the Athens Observer. But Charlie had the ability to see through his horn-rimmed glasses something in these scruffy, long-haired guys that didn’t show up in a balance sheet. He made the judgment to lend us the money. He didn’t have to check with anybody or bring the loan before a committee; he just at last said “Okay” and had us sign the paperwork and that was it. Because of Charlie’s judgement, we were able to buy the Enterprise and install our friend the young Scott Maxwell, from the Oglethorpe County newspaper family, to run it. When Scott moved on to Atlanta, Chuck convinced his friend Vinnie Williams to move up here from Thomson and run the Enterprise, and of course she ended up owning it, and she ran it until she died.

Charlie’s ability to envision possibilities made an impact on local journalism and continued to do so as he lent us money for other purposes through the years. How many other local businesses did he assist? I’m sure he had to turn some down, as he sat there making his assessments, but just think how much Charlie Burch contributed to helping Athens businesses get started and keep going.

Charlie wasn’t a soft touch.“If you can convince me that you don’t need it, I’ll lend you the money,” he would say, with a twinkle in his eye. He made us confront the seriousness of what we were undertaking and come to grips with how we could make it work. 

By the time somebody lives to 94, business, sports, friendships, civic involvements are in the past; newer generations don’t know that person’s accomplishments and impact. Yet people like Charlie are those who touch so many lives because in their work, their commitments and even in their play, they contribute to their community, and they live on in the people and the institutions they touch. Charlie is just one example of how much we can do if we’re willing to immerse ourselves in the life of our community with a loving and clear-eyed vision open to the possibilities of others and ready to help where possible. Charlie Burch personified the words in the Athenian Oath inscribed on our statue of Athena: “…Thus in all these ways we will transmit this City, not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”