Lipstick, caffeine, nicotine and newspapers.
That mix helped define former longtime Albuquerque Journal reporter Susanne Burks, who died June 15 in Florida, where she had lived for the last year.
Burks, who retired from the Journal in 1996, was 87. She was a role model to many younger women, having begun her profession 50 years earlier, when newspapers were largely staffed by men, and the women who did work for daily papers were mostly writing features and “society” news.
Burks began her career at age 13, writing a column for her hometown newspaper in Missouri. She later received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She continued working in the field before and during her lengthy marriage to William F. “Bill” Burks, taking time out for a few years to stay home with their two children when they were very young.
She began working at the Journal in 1971, first as the education reporter, then a city hall reporter and most memorably the court reporter.
“She was an old-school reporter who knew the courthouse inside and out. She wanted to cover every story and was determined to get every one of them right,” said Journal Senior Editor Kent Walz. “She was an incredible collector of court documents. Even her car trunk was full of pleadings. She loved the beat.”
Burks was loud, aggressive and methodical, taking copious notes in shorthand. She smoked cigarettes and drank out of a mug stained with the residue of years of instant coffee mixed with hot tap water, and a bright red ring around the rim from her ever-present lipstick.
“Whatever she covered became synonymous with Susanne. She owned the beat,” said Denise Tessier, a former Journal colleague and past president of New Mexico Press Women. “She was all business, but she had a sense of humor.”
Tessier recalls most vividly Burks’ days covering courts, and how she moved quickly and efficiently within her sphere. “She’d be out at court all day, come back in and tell the city desk what she had and then bang out her story by deadline, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes – until cigarettes were banned in the newsroom.”
Burks was also a fighter. She fought for her stories and she fought for women. Articles she wrote about discrimination against women led to her involvement in 1971 in the statewide movement for adoption of the New Mexico Equal Rights Amendment, Tessier said.
In 1990, the Albuquerque League of Women Voters honored Burks for her role in the state ERA campaign. In 2003, the New Mexico Press Women named her as its Communicator of Achievement, the organization’s highest honor.
Prominent Albuquerque attorney Randi McGinn remembered Burks from the days when McGinn was an assistant district attorney.
“Susanne was my first press contact. She reminded me of Brenda Starr, right down to the lipstick and makeup,” McGinn said, referring to the syndicated comic strip about an adventurous reporter that was published in newspapers from 1940 through 2011.
“She had the reddest lips of anyone. You could see her coming a mile away, so you could decide if you wanted to run or stay and give her a quote. She was a dogged reporter and a great journalist and you knew she was going to ask tough questions.”
And because Burks understood the court system, “you didn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining things like what an indictment was or how a grand jury worked,” McGinn said. “She knew her stuff.”
Former state District Court Judge Woody Smith also remembered Burks. “She and I had lots of conversations. She was always interested in getting the story right and without sensationalism. That’s what I appreciated about her,” Smith said. “Susanne also understood the human part of the court system, because court cases are really about people.”
Burks was preceded in death by her husband of 56 years, Bill. She is survived by a son, Dr. Randy Burks of Florida, daughter Julie Forbes of Arizona, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Burks’ ashes will be buried along with her late husband’s at the National Cemetery in Santa Fe.