Friday, September 6, 2013

He Learned Me To Talk Good

Back in the 60’s and 70’s, you didn’t get a speech degree of any kind – including an MST (Master of Science in Teaching) – without taking Don Burdick’s famous VD class at UW-Oshkosh.


Yah, that’s what we called it.  VD class.


VD, in this case, stood for Voice and Diction, and no one taught it like Don Burdick, who, at age 80, passed away a couple weeks ago.  I found out about Don’s passing while perusing the latest UW-O alumni newsletter.  The second I saw the headline for the story about Don’s death a flood of vivid memories came over me.


Back when I took the VD class, 40-some years ago, UW-O was in the midst of a huge enrollment explosion, with a lot of young men trying to maintain their 2-S deferment status with their local draft board, and a lot of young men who’d already done their time in Viet Nam and had figured their lives out, had come to get an education with a little help from Uncle Sam, and start a career.


With the explosive growth of enrollment, UW-O was always short of facilities. They were throwing up classroom buildings, dorms, and service buildings left and right.  The brand new, huge Clow Social Science Center had just been built, but it was already over capacity.  So Don Burdick’s VD class was held in some God-forsaken glorified ramshackle shed on the southeast corner of campus.


No one could have made that funky old warehouse-converted-to-a-classroom come alive like Don Burdick did.  And nobody cut Don’s VD class. Not because Don had a policy about cutting class, and not because he took attendance.  The class was so cool, so good, so informative, so useful, so much fun, and taught so well that nobody wanted to miss anything that went on in Don’s VD class.


Don’s undergrad degree was in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern, and his Master’s was in Theatre from UW-Madison.  He loved to act, and he put his substantial acting talent to use every time he stood in front of a class.  Don had an absolutely gorgeous bass-baritone voice, and he knew how to use as well as a virtuoso musician knows how to use his instrument. And he had "mad skills", as the kids today say, in helping each individual student make the most of whatever kind of voice the good Lord had given them.  In short, he made us BETTER. That's the kind of teacher you remember.


The class was packed with a yeasty mix of future actors, teachers, and broadcasters. Quite a few would-be broadcasters came into Don’s class pronouncing the 23rd letter of the alphabet like George Bush – dubya – but left his class pronouncing all three syllables of that letter.  He would thunder “half the broadcast stations in this nation have a name beginning with W, and you’ll learn to speak the name of that station (the call letters) properly before you leave this class!”  Actually, it only took any dubya-sayer one session with Don to cure the "dubya syndrome".


Another memorable part of VD class for me was that one of the most beautiful girls on campus chose to sit next to me.  She was a UW-O Titan cheerleader; her boyfriend was one of the toughest, strongest, and most athletic young men on campus, the tight end on the Titan football team; and she wanted to be a speech therapist.  When she sat next to me and introduced herself the first day of class, she said she knew who I was from Dr. Check’s TV show. I was the tuba player for UW-O Ed Psych Professor John Check’s Wisconsin Dutchmen band, and she said she loved to dance the polka! Sitting next to Goldie (her self-approved nickname) three days a week would be cause enough for distraction, but Don Burdick demanded – and earned – every ounce of every student’s attention.


We learned how to articulate, how to project, how to use the full dynamic range of our voice, and we did it out loud, in front of Don Burdick and all our classmates.  And he made what might well have been a terrifying and potentially embarrassing experience fun.  Try saying “toy boat” ten times, fast.  Now do it in front of 30 people. “Grip top socks” was another of Don’s famous vocal warm-up phrases.  Try saying that one five times fast.


The things I learned in Don Burdick’s VD class – and in his Voice Science class (another requirement for the MST degree) have stuck with me for over four decades, and I still use things I learned from Don to this day, voicing news stories in my part-time work for Public News Service.


Don and I became colleagues, when the late Dr. Bob Snyder – my chief academic broadcasting mentor – hired me as a faculty adjunct at UW-O to teach night classes in Broadcast Law and Broadcast Advertising. I saw Don at a faculty gathering, and told him again how much I’d learned in his classes and how much I enjoyed them.  I called him Mr. Burdick.  He looked me square in the eye and said “I’m not going to call you Mr. Morrissey and I won’t have you calling me Mr. Burdick, Tim”.


You’ve earned a good rest, Don.  Your work here is done.  You did it extremely well, and you will never be forgotten.


  1. Beautiful story! You are as good a writer as you are radio voice. You and Tony were my favorite Madison broadcasters. I also taught an evening J. course at UW O. It would kill me when the kids
    slept through my class.

    1. Thanks, Glen - kind words from one of my heroes! I, too, had many a night teaching those broadcast classes in a lower-level (basement) classroom at the Halsey Science Center when kids would drift off or literally fall asleep - but there were always those few who paid attention, got something out of it, and took the time to thank me. I'm sure your experience was similar.