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Bob Burdette of Burlington

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

By the time Robert Jones Burdette arrived in Burlington, Iowa, in 1874 to work as city editor and reporter for the Burlington Hawk-Eye newspaper, he should have known better than to try to be funny.  He had left his job as reporter for the Peoria Transcript after his editor called him in one day and said, "When I want anything funny in the paper, I'll write it myself."

Burnette went over to an afternoon Peoria paper, the Review, which soon folded, and he moved on to Burlington. The Hawk-Eye was no place for humor either. It had a reputation as a "sober staid old paper, financially solid." The editor told Burnette that his job was "to tell all the doings of the town and refrain from all printed mirth as unseemly."

So, Burnette should have known better than to write a daily column full of wit, gentle satire, and wry humor. But write he did. His column, "Hawkeyetems of Roaming Robert," became one of the fathers of the newspaper column that is standard fare in most newspapers today. Burnette's columns made him internationally famous and brought him friendship with fellow humorists such as Mark Twain and James Whitcomb Riley.

During the eleven years Burnette wrote his columns, the Burlington Hawk-Eye became a nationally known newspaper with a circulation that reached virtually every state in the Union—a success which silenced his disapproving editor.

Eventually, Robert Burdette left Burlington to become a Baptist preacher, and a professional lecturer, a move that brought him into competition with another famous Baptist preacher, Russell H. Conwell, founder of Temple University. Conwell preached his famous sermon, "Acres of Diamonds," some five thousand times before he died, Historians estimate than only one other lecture in the United States approached or equaled Conwell's record: a little bit of humor by Robert Jones Burnette called "The Rise and Fall of the Moustache."

Becoming a Baptist preacher helped the old Hawk-Eye columnist keep sin down to a reasonable level, but it wasn't any more effective than his editors in repressing his sense of humor.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.