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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Fort Worth’s premier ad man: Frank Burkett knew how to work – and play

Frank Burkett

March 19, 1929 – Sept. 23, 2018

Frank Burkett – as they say in the sometimes-cynical advertising business – met his final deadline Sept. 23. He was 89, and wrung dry every minute of his time on this earth.

I met Frank after I was hired at Witherspoon by Roger Rienstra in 1976. I had no idea I was meeting the man who not only would teach me about the ad biz, but also how to live life.

Back in the day, Frank was responsible for Witherspoon landing most of its flagship accounts. He had a unique style of presenting ideas to skeptical clients, a kind of “Aw, shucks” approach with just the right mix of Madison Avenue shtick. He pitched concepts on the fly, and many a mesmerized client would fall in and approve his work. They almost always were glad they did.

Frank and I would spend many a lunch driving around in his ’66 Mustang convertible. He drove it to work every day for nearly 40 years; rarely was the top ever up. I think of it as sharing the front seat with the master of our trade.

In the days before computers, cell phones or even fax machines, he was as precise as a surgeon with only pen, paper and a manual typewriter. He could think, plan, write and draw – a virtual one-man shop.

He always expected those working with him to do no less than their best. Sometimes you were rewarded with a “carrot” in the form of a back slap or smile, and sometimes you were prodded with one of his infamous verbal “sticks.”

Ad agency clients come, and they go. But Frank was so highly regarded that many a departed client returned, based solely on the beauty of ideas he delivered. He produced more in terms of quality and quantity than anyone else at our agency. It is a fact that Witherspoon exists today in its 72nd year because of Frank Burkett.

His output is legendary. His “Fort Worth National … that’s MY bank!” jingle put Witherspoon on the map. He did wonderful consumer work for Texas Electric Service Co. and equally good – if not as visible – industrial advertising for the likes of Hobbs Trailers and Power Service Products. Even in his “retirement” he found a way to apply his natural talents, scripting the Fort Worth Stock Show tribute vignette performed at every rodeo performance during its 1996 centennial celebration. Additionally, for the October 2001 grand opening of Central Market, he penned original lyrics to a Grateful Dead tune that store executives performed at the event.

But he was so much more than Cowtown’s premier ad man. He could rattle off jokes and stories like no other. Recite entire poems from his favorite, Rudyard Kipling. Play the ukulele and bang the ivories at parties. He was active in his church for nearly 80 years, kept a busy lunch schedule with friends and old classmates, and did volunteer work. He and his loving wife, Sue, raised a fine family and they were famous as gracious hosts for neighborhood gatherings.

Frank taught me to order the burnt ends at Angelo’s, to appreciate beer, to set aside work and then come back to it to improve it, to think before speaking, to appreciate what others can contribute, to be patient.

Some of my best memories of Frank occurred at 321 S. Henderson St., where the ’Spoon officed until 1983. We had a basketball hoop in the parking lot and, after work, Roger and Frank would get two or three of us on each side and play to 21. Then Frank would send me on a beer run. We then would enjoy a cold beer. It was a marvelous time to soak up Frank’s wit and wisdom – until about 6.30 or so, when Sue would call and ask, “How much longer, Frank?”

Frank has a lasting impact on all who knew him, especially those of us who had the honor of working with and for him.

He had to go, of course. We all do, eventually. I just wish Frank could have stayed a little longer.

Mike Wilie is president and CEO of Witherspoon Marketing Communications. http://witherspoon.com/

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