October 31, 2012
PDT Staff Writer
When Dick Burdette was a Portsmouth boy in the forties and early fifties, he would ride with his dad who delivered for the Old Portsmouth Cake and Cookie Company to the old Civilian Conservation Camp (CCC) at Haverhill.
“Every time we went up there, someone would say, ‘hey cake man, you got any samples,’ and my dad would always laugh and say, ‘no, not today,’” Burdette said. “Finally, I asked him, ‘why don’t we have any samples, we could sell a bunch of them up there.’ I didn’t know what a sample was.” Burdette’s father went on to drive a Borden’s Milk truck and an Adams Baking Company truck.
Inspired by those memories, “Samples,” is Burdette’s latest offering in a long line of books about Portsmouth, mostly about things such as unsolved murders. “Willa Ramey is Missing,” available on Amazon.com and through Barnes&Noble, was Burdette’s last book about a Portsmouth girl who reportedly left her home on a cold, rainy morning March 19, 1943, and never made it to Portsmouth High School. She has never been seen since. His “Pockets Full Awry,” concerns the murder of a local physician, Dr. George Obrist. Burdette has also written the definitive book on The Waterloo Wonders basketball team.
His latest book, “Samples,” is about people who attended the 10 contiguous schools in the city back then.
“I interviewed nearly a hundred people who live in Portsmouth or were former residents,” Burdette said. “Portsmouth was made up of 10 school districts and we have a picture of each of the 10. I tried to get 10 people who lived in each of the 10 districts and said, ‘what was it like growing up. Tell me your favorite story,’ so 90 percent of it is not my recollections, but people who grew up in the Wilson district, or the Garfield district, or Roosevelt, or whatever.”
One of the questions he asked has been asked for decades.
“Where was the elusive ‘hilltop’ everyone always thought existed, and I don’t think it did,” Burdette said. He received a lot of answers to the question.
“”Dick Grimm, who grew up on Coles Boulevard, told me, ’ I grew up on the hilltop and I had never heard of it,’” Burdette said. “One woman at our 50th reunion said, ‘I lived on the hilltop.’ I asked, ‘where was that’ and she said on Vinton Avenue, which is about a block off Robinson Avenue. Some said anything north of Grant Street is the hilltop. I define it as above Robinson Avenue, the flood plain. Anything above that, you were safe from the flood waters.”
Burdette said he grew up in the Highland School District and he said his family never thought about being poor until they got to high school.
“All of a sudden, we saw kids wearing their finer clothes. Some of them had cars. They always seemed to be in all the activities, except for athletics because it was pretty competitive,” Burdette said. “I think most people, when they got to high school, discovered they were looked down on. They thought they were anyway. I found out this was going on clear back in the 1930’s, people thought they were being kind of discriminated against.”
Burdette said he looked to find out where the wealth of the city was located. He said the early settlers were poor, but Portsmouth became a middle class city in the 50’s. “So this book is stories of people growing up in every part of town, since people back then didn’t have cars, so they didn’t know what it was like in other parts of the town. This is just a great group of stories and everyone agreed, Portsmouth was a great town to grow up in, and that was a great time to grow up there.”
Burdette graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1953 and went off to college. He returned to write for the Portsmouth Daily Times from 1957 to 1959, and the book is dedicated to legendary Times writer Pete Minego.
“He is the one who was responsible for whatever I’ve accomplished,” Burdette said.
Burdette will be in town for a book signing, Nov. 9 & 10 at Market Street Cafe from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day. Copies of his new book are available there.
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 252, or at firstname.lastname@example.org