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Amiable, Yet Troubled Man Will Be Missed
Saturday, 24th May, 2008  - Ben Parker

I found this beautiful obituary for John David Burton of Rock Hill, South Carolina on the South Carolina HeraldOnline website. A lot of effort has gone into remembering this man who could safely be described as the town drunk. Deserving of a wider readership.

Amiable, Yet Troubled Man Will Be Missed

By Andrew Dys · The Herald Updated 11/18/07 - 12:52 AM

He drank; Lord, did John David Burton drink. Rotgut whiskey, wine, beer, everything in between. It was all the same to the man known as John David.

"We stopped selling to him at least 15 years ago," said Martha Estridge, owner of a liquor store he used to frequent. "Didn't need the money, wouldn't take his money."

But when John David Burton was sober, he wasn't a drunk. He was a man. He was loved.

"He would stop in here when he was sober and say, 'I love you,' said Estridge's daughter, Jennifer. "Everybody liked him. Us. We loved him."

Through so many years, almost anybody who was a Rock Hill police officer knew this man. Because he was arrested hundreds of times, almost always for public disorderly intoxication. Since 1994, as far back as computerized city court records go, 271 times. Many more times, too, state records show, dating back to 1975.

Police would find him curled up on somebody's porch, in a vacant lot or beside a building.

"I once picked him up off the railroad tracks and carried him to the car on my back," Rock Hill Lt. Ken Fields said. "I dealt with him so many times. He might turn up on any side of town. He never fought, never was vindictive, never was mean."

At the city jail, all knew John David Burton. He liked cell No. 2, close to the front where he could be friendly with everybody. Sober, the smile came back from the somewhere it had died a thousand times. He would help with food distribution, sweep up some.

"He was always a gentleman. First thing he would say is, 'Good morning, Ms. Myra,'" said Myra Durham, a longtime corrections officer at the jail.

At the Rock Hill city court, where he pleaded guilty all those times, waiting to get time served or four days in jail, or 10 days, or 15, or 30, all knew him. Sober in court, a gentleman.

Part of the family

Diane Anderson, clerk of the city's court, has an office that handled 17,138 cases last year. But she remembers all the times, through so many years, that Burton stood tall in court. The "sadness" is how she described what she saw. Then the "grace" by which this man handled the consequences, engraved in her memory forever.

"He was always humble, always showed every one of us respect," Anderson said.

Ray Long, a city judge who sentenced him time and time again and still did not belittle John David Burton, described him as, "polite, courteous, respectful."

But Burton would get out of jail, drink again, get arrested again. Sometimes, it would be in a few days, or longer. But always again. The jailers would see him again, and the court would, too.

"He was here so much, he was like part of a little family," Durham said.

About a month ago, for a few days, none of the police officers had seen the short, slight man. The man who when sober dressed sharply and combed the gray hair but lost all that style and more when drinking.

Sure enough, police found him dead in late October in the bed in his apartment. The coroner's office listed his date of death as Oct. 17, said Sabrina Gast, interim coroner. The cause of death was determined as complications from alcohol abuse, Gast said.

He was born May 18, 1939. A man 68 years old.

One of Burton's brothers, James Edward Burton, said a quart of almost-full Silver Satin wine was on a stand. Another bottle of wine was in the refrigerator, unopened. The apartment was clean.

"Spotless," said James Edward Burton.

There were groceries in the refrigerator.

Making a bad choice

James Edward Burton said the family was originally from Chester, grew up poor, and came to Rock Hill in the mid-1950s, where they lived on Flint Street. John David, who was able to go to school to about the seventh grade, made a bad decision and was caught breaking into a store, his brother said. State Law Enforcement Division records show Burton served four years.

While in the penitentiary, Burton needed surgery to have most of his stomach taken out, his brother said. Sometime after his release, the drinking started.

"It wouldn't take much because of his stomach," James Edward Burton said.

Burton worked some in construction, but he would get drunk and get arrested. In the days of the chain gang at the York County jail, Burton was on it many times, his brother said. When he finished, he would walk home from York.

The mother and John David later moved to Steele Street.

So many times over the years, even the day of his death, Burton would come by his brother's house next to the mother's home. Sober, John David Burton was a different man, his brother said. Burton always carried a Bible. He knew the Lord, his brother said.

"He had his ways, but we loved him, and I can tell you the police loved him, too," James Edward Burton said. "He might have had the Guinness book of records for times in jail, but it wasn't because the police didn't care about him."

When Burton was drinking, police, family and strangers feared for his safety.

Many times, the brother said, it was their late mother who called for police to pick him up or look for him. Jailers talked of how they often would get calls from Burton's mother to see if he was there.

"I would say, 'Yes, ma'am, he's safe with us tonight,'" said Lutricia Davis, a 15-year city jail worker.

Plenty of tears

Word started to spread soon after police found Burton dead.

"A policeman came in here and told us about his death, and I cried," said Jennifer Estridge from that liquor store that wouldn't sell him liquor. "I picked him up myself off those railroad tracks. Picked him up other times, too."

News of Burton's death got around the city's police station and courts and jail. Even some of the inmates said, "Oh no, John David is dead."

Fields and Anderson helped organize a memorial service. Judge Long, a longtime minister, volunteered to hold the service. He arranged for an organist.

One of the police officers who heard -- the call came from a crying jailer -- was Sarah Blair, who handles warrant service for the department. When she heard of the death of the man the police scanner would crackle about countless times, she did what so many with badges and guns did who dealt with John David Burton.

She cried.

She recalled all those times on the road she saw Burton, when he was sober, and she would wave and stop to talk and he would treat her like gold.

"It was like I lost a grandfather," Blair said. "I loved him because he was respectful. When he was in jail, he would help me with the envelopes for mailings."

Jailed for his safety

Like Fields and other police who knew Burton from the street, Blair said that most times police arrested Burton after calls from people who were concerned that he would be hurt or worse.

"We just wanted to keep him safe; we didn't want him stumbling around," she said. "We didn't arrest him to be nasty. We did it for his safety."

Blair knew Burton so well that one time a phone call on a cold night came into the police department asking for Logan -- Blair's maiden name.

"The snake bit me," said the voice on the other end of the line. Burton.

She went and got him, finding the snake to be King Cobra, a malt liquor.

Blair told Burton several times if he could stay sober, she would pay him to do yard work, maybe even highlight his hair like he always wanted.

"But he just couldn't beat it," Blair said. "He was an alcoholic. It was an addiction.

"But that didn't mean I didn't care for him."

At that evening service, besides Burton's family, more than 20 people from the justice system were there. Some from Winthrop police and the York County jail. Tom Caldwell of the county jail wasn't going to miss that service.

"He would always ask for a Bible," Caldwell said. "We probably gave him a stack of Bibles over the years. He would always want reading glasses so he could read, so we would furnish the glasses."

A group of Rock Hill jailers came. One in tears was Davis, who in all those years working at the jail dealt with Burton more than anyone.

"The last time he was here, he asked if there was anything he could do for me, and I let him bag up the laundry," Davis said. "He said, 'Ms. Davis, I love you.' And I said, 'John David, I love you, too.'"

A bunch of Rock Hill police officers were there, too, and Anderson from the clerk's office. An audience of men and women, black and white, young and old. Police officers, jailers, clerks and a judge leading the way.

There were flowers, some donated, some bought by policemen like Sarah Blair.

Looking for the good

Judge Long, the preacher with a reputation as a firm but compassionate jurist, spoke of forgiveness. He sang a solo of "Amazing Grace" that had the place awash in tears.

Fields led a prayer about salvation. He asked for the safety of the men and women in uniform who do what they do every day. He told the assembled group, "Look for the good in people. It is there."

What happened at that service was not about what John David Burton did during his life. It was about what these people who had to carry this man on their backs to safety or to jail, or befriend him in the jail, or handle his court cases, did to honor him.

It was about love.

John David Burton was a man. He had his flaws, certainly. Yet, he received dignity in life, and in death, from the same people who for so many years had to put him in cuffs, or cells.

"I don't think he ever understood just how much we all cared about him," said Fields, the veteran police lieutenant.

Hopefully, now John David knows.

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