James Noland Burrus, who made his mark in Boulder County and beyond as a journalist and communications professional, was found dead of natural causes Friday at his home near Longmont. He was 57.
He impacted the lives of many, not only through the stories he reported for print, but as a mentor, a raconteur and a bon vivant, a man who made the world a livelier place for those who entered his full-volume orbit.
Burrus worked as a reporter at the Daily Camera in the early 1990s, before moving to the now-defunct Boulder Planet in 1996, where he served as its managing editor. After an ensuing stint as editor at the Aspen Daily News, Burrus became a communications specialist for the Boulder County Commissioners from 1999 to 2005.
He joined the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder 11 years ago as a supervisory public affairs specialist, and was working there at the time of his death. His death was discovered after he did not report for work on Friday.
“He will be remembered as a caring, talented, gregarious friend, who loved his job, his family, his community and the outdoor life,” NIST Director Walter Copan said in a message to the NIST community. “He will be sorely missed by us all. Jim cheerily gave of his best to NIST and to others.”
Mike Chard, director of the Boulder Office of Emergency Management, said Burrus was an important member of the Emergency Support Function-15 team, a group of public information professionals who would be activated at the time of disasters such as the 2013 flood. Burrus was known for happily grabbing overnight shifts during emergencies, for which others were not so enthusiastic.
“He was a guy who would always bring a calming sense to the situation and a great understanding, and emotionally connect with you and make it easier for you when you’re having a hard time,” Chard said. “A great person to have on the team, and a great friend.”
A bit Breslin, a bit gonzo
Like the hub of a wheel with spokes moving too fast to count, Burrus was the glue in a community of Boulder journalists, many of whom stayed in the business, others who did not — but who all treasured the time they spent in the same newsrooms with him digging for the next great story.
Jim Sheeler, who went from the Camera to the Planet to the Rocky Mountain News, where he won a Pulitzer Prize before going on to his current job as journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, recalls the days in 1996 when the Planet put out its first edition, with Burrus as managing editor.
“The first issue, which came out a day later than expected, was like being in college again, in a way, doing what we loved with the people we loved,” Sheeler said. “Because everything had fallen back (in scheduling), we ended up in the back of Burrus’s pickup, delivering the first issues.”
Sheeler remembered that Burrus had moved a big old wooden desk that had belonged to his father into the Planet’s newsroom adjacent to the Boulder Theater on 14th Street.
“It commanded the back of the newsroom at the Planet, and that gave it this air of style and heft. He would have done really well as a kind of old school newspaper man in the 1930s or ’40s,” Sheeler said. “He had that kind of combination of Jimmy Breslin and Hunter Thompson, together. He could be really brash and really gruff, and also extremely kind. And he really, really cared a lot about his stories.”
Brad Evans of Lakewood was a close personal friend of Burrus.
“He had left the Planet before it died, and then he was the editor of the Aspen Daily News, which was such a perfect role for Burrus. In the middle of a (expletive)-storm he could find the stories, where people never would have thought that much news could be produced,” Evans said.
“That guy has been my rock, forever. Losing him, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I could bounce any crazy idea off him, good, bad or ugly, and he would tell me the truth about it. And if it was a good idea, he’d be on board.”
Steve Knopper, music writer for the Camera from 1991 to 1994, now a Denver-based author on music and editor-at-large for Billboard Magazine, last saw Burrus in a sparse crowd of about 20 people at a DJ set by Jello Biafra at the Lion’s Lair Lounge in Denver.
“He was just a big bear of a guy,” Knopper said. “He had this kind of Chris Farley personality, loud and booming, in all the best possible ways. And with Jim — he was never ‘Jim, he was always ‘Burrus’ — he was your friend, instantly. From the very first moment I met him, he treated me like we had been friends for years. And I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I don’t know many people like that, in my life. He was always up for mischief.”
‘Broadside, in a cloud of smoke’
But for Burrus, it was hardly all about the gonzo. His plate was sufficiently full that those who knew him from one venue might have been totally unaware of other arenas in which he flourished. For just one example, he also had served since 2012 on the Boulder County Historic Preservation Advisory Board, filling the position of chair since 2015.
“Many people don’t realize that Jim is the reason we have the county’s Historic Preservation Rehabilitation Grant Program,” Denise Grimm, principal planner for Boulder County Planning and Permitting and HPAB staff liaison, wrote in an email.
After a discussion she had with Burrus about property owners perhaps benefiting more in the future from incentives than controls, “Jim… saw it as a real possibility and spoke to the commissioners. Next thing I knew they were contacting me to write up a proposal and within a few months we had our grant program. Since that time we’ve been able to fund over 100 projects.”
A native of Independence, Mo., Burrus is survived by two brothers, David Burrus of Leawood, Kan.; Daniel Burrus of Berlin, Germany; and his mother, Patricia Louise Hogan, of Prairie Village, Kan. Survivors also include his wife, Tina Mueller of Longmont, from whom he was separated, and a stepson, Valentino Baub.
“It’s truly humbling, to put it mildly,” David Burrus, 50, said of testimonials he has been hearing and reading, for his brother. “It’s been wonderful, in a kind of twisted way. He got a lot in, in 57 years, and I’m going to emulate that.”
Former journalist Jim Moscou, who said he was “poached” from the Camera to join Burrus at the Planet, cited this quote from author Thompson, which was posted by David Burrus in a remembrance of his brother on Facebook: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
While no services have yet been set, Moscou said friends are planning a “big-ass celebration of life” party for Burrus sometime in the coming months.
“Candidly, we’re all wrapping our heads around how to send him out Hunter S. Thompson-style,” Moscou said. “Honestly. I’ve talked to Jim about that quote on and off a dozen times over the years.
“It was always the basis of everything he was doing — that he had a great story to tell.”