Veteran newsman, mentor, public citizen

BURNELL ALBERT HEINECKE June 11, 1927-Dec. 5, 2018
Veteran newsman, mentor, public citizen

Burnie Heinecke was a veteran newsman, a fixture in community theater and a strong advocate for higher education, traits well-known to his many friends. But to me, he was also a mentor, the guy who first got me interested in the nitty-gritty details of state finance and guided me through the labyrinth of legislative process, Byzantine rulemaking and how a bill really becomes a law.

I was a cub reporter, fresh from a three-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Panama, when the Chicago Sun-Times sent me to Springfield in late 1969 to cover the Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention. I was so raw, I arrived by train, jumped into a cab, and told the driver, “Take me to the St. Nick!”

Burnecke, as his friends called him, was kind enough to take me under his wing as I tried to follow the politics and policy at play in Con-Con. My tutelage began in earnest when the paper assigned me to the Capitol bureau for the 1971 legislative session, with Burnie as the bureau chief, and for the next five years I benefited from his counsel as I gradually became comfortable with the beat.

But his concern and guidance went well beyond one rookie reporter. As president of the Illinois Legislative Correspondents Association, he played a major role in refurbishing a suite of Statehouse mezzanine-level hearing rooms into a much-needed press room for a growing press corps.

Along with some of his fellow bureau chiefs and then-outgoing Lt. Gov. Paul Simon, he helped fashion with administrators at the brand-new Sangamon State University a program that would provide academic credit for on-the-job learning for aspiring journalists, what was to become the Public Affairs Reporting program that I now have the privilege of directing.

As ILCA president, Burnie and his fellow reporters initiated the annual Gridiron dinners that became a highlight of the spring legislative session, raising funds for scholarships at the U of I and other schools, including one in his name at UIS. Though the dinners ended when the legislature set May 31 as its adjournment date, residual funds still help underwrite costs of PAR’s annual fall media trip to Chicago.

And as a final note, Burnie introduced me to The Muni in the early ’70s when I saw him in Music Man, the first of many community theater productions I enjoyed, including several with various family members on the stage.

So I owe a debt of gratitude to Burnie for opening the door to a 24-year career as a legislative reporter, then the opportunity to help other young reporters polish their skills in the PAR program he helped create.

Above all, he was a good man who will be missed by his many friends and at least one grateful disciple.

Charlie Wheeler is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield and a former Statehouse reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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