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UT professor gets daily view of Austin changing

It’s a 3 1/2-mile walk between Gene Burd’s apartment near Barton
Springs Road and his office on the University
of Texas campus, a walk that he
makes twice a day. He’s easy to spot on downtown streets, namely because Burd
hoofs his daily commute at a brisk pace that belies his 76 years.

A compactly built man with thinning white hair, Burd has
walked the same route with only slight variations since he started teaching
journalism at UT in 1972. He eschews cars, believing they have a negative
effect on the urban environment. He walks to the doctor, to the grocery store
and to work. He never uses elevators because “you meet a better class of
people” on staircases, he says.

A reporter since 1953 and teacher since 1959, Burd has a
gentle, high-pitched voice and often holds his hand over his mouth when he
talks, as if telling a secret. His office is so full of papers and books
stacked to the ceiling that it’s nearly impossible to step inside.

He’s also famously frugal so much so that in 2004, he used
more than $1 million of his own money, most of it just from saving up his
paychecks and investments, to establish the Urban Communication Foundation,
which gives financial awards to journalists and researchers who specialize in
city planning, architecture, zoning, environmental issues and other urban
topics. He has since given the foundation $25,000 for operational costs.

This from a man known as one of the lowest-paid tenured
professors in his department.

While Burd expects that many people think of him as
“that crazy old fart who walks everywhere,” his daily walk gives him
a chance to observe his city as it grows and changes.

Gene Burd is a man who loves cities. It’s why he created his
foundation. It’s a curious passion, considering Burd was born in a cabin in
rural Missouri and was educated in a one-room schoolhouse in the Ozarks.

He worked as a newspaper reporter in several cities before
earning a doctorate in urban media studies from Northwestern University in
Chicago and joining the UT faculty.

“Gene was an early pioneer into urban journalism and
the problems that caused Detroit and L.A. to burn in the 1960s,” said
Rusty Todd, a professor and former chairman of the UT journalism school.

Though he now has the longest tenure in the journalism
school, Burd is still an associate professor and his $73,779 annual salary
ranks beneath many younger peers. While he says that he’s “a little
bitter” about that, he has nonetheless made a lasting impression on many
of his students.

“He’s a wonderful professor who really understands
journalism and its course over time,” said Megan Larson, a recent graduate
and former student of Burd’s.

“One thing he told us was that if you want to be a good
writer, you have to know a little bit about everything,” said Dennis
Killian, another former student.

Every day at 6 p.m., Burd often decked out in a tan bucket
hat and old gray New Balance running shoes and toting a blue canvas briefcase
leaves his office and starts heading south. He takes the bus only when
lightning threatens.

He makes his way down Guadalupe, checking the newspaper
headlines as he passes and making sure to catch a blast of cool air from the
Union Underground beneath the streets. Passing the giant oak trees near the
Harry Ransom Center, Burd effortlessly bounds across a concrete block near the
Shell station on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard before heading down Lavaca
Street. It’s a straight shot downtown after this.

Along the way, he likes to remember. He remembers how
Cambridge Towers on Lavaca were controversial when they were built in the 1970s
because they were taller than the Capitol. He remembers how the Schlotzsky’s on
Guadalupe used to be the Night Hawk restaurant where he ate his first meal in
Austin. He remembers how there used to be more bookstores, cafes and hangouts
along the Drag.

“Compared to what it used to be, the Drag has really
become, well, a drag,” Burd says.

By the time he’s reached the Governor’s Mansion, Burd is
half an hour into his commute. Seven blocks south, he checks the newspaper
stand outside the Halcyon coffee shop for old copies of The New York Times. He
likes to point out how few of the cars that zoom past him have more than one
passenger inside. He observes how downtown has changed with the construction of
the posh Second Street shopping district and the new City Hall.

“It’s like a bad marriage: It’s ugly, but you get used
to it,” Burd says of the municipal building.

His walk doesn’t always go as he plans. He has to contend
with traffic nearly running him over and bad weather, and he was beaten and
robbed about 10 years ago.

– Associated Press

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