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A lesson from Uncle Burnett

My great-uncle Burnett Bergeson passed away in Reno, Nev., last week at the ripe old age of 95.

A member of the Minnesota House of Representatives from 1954-1962, Uncle Burnett was an DFLer in the Hubert Humphery-Orville Freeman tradition. 

Uncle Burnett later worked under Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman in the USDA during the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. 

It was only after Hubert Humphery lost the election to Richard Nixon in 1968, thus ending Uncle Burnett's political carreer, that he was around home enough for a kid like me to get to know him a little. 

Uncle Burnett was addicted to big ideas. He never stopped thinking, dreaming, ruminating. His wheels always turned, and they didn't bother with anything small. 

Like my Grandpa, his brother, Uncle Burnett didn't mess with petty niceties like saying hello, goodbye or discussing the weather. You knew the phone call was over when you heard a click. 

As for the start of conversation, you sort of merged into whatever Uncle Burnett was dreaming about at the moment. It wasn't always obvious, but it was always interesting. 

And when he drove home the final point, Uncle Burnett always ended up about three inches from your nose. 

A few years back, I flew out to Reno to surprise Uncle Burnett and Aunt Adeline on their 60th wedding anniversary. 

I had a little trouble finding the house until I saw Uncle Burnett pacing behind one of the homes on the street. The party had just started, but he had already escaped the small talk for some fresh air.

I walked around the side of the house and said, "Hello, Uncle!"

It had been four years since I had last seen him. 

But did Uncle Burnett say hello? Did he say what in the world are you doing here? Did he shake my hand and say, good grief, great to see you? 

Nope. Uncle Burnett jabbed his finger into my chest and said, "Eric, it was a mistake to try to save the 160-acre family farm. A mistake!"

Uncle Burnett was out in the back yard refighting the battles of the Agriculture Department in the early-1960s. 

"You're never going to fight bigger tractors!" he said. "When the machinery gets bigger, the people can farm more land. The farms will grow as long as the tractors get bigger. It is a mistake to fight it!"

I didn't argue. We had a good discussion about agriculture policy. I eventually went inside to eat and exchange more customary pleasantries. 

A few years earlier, before Uncle Burnett moved with Aunt Adeline to Reno to be near his children, I had gone to work as a page at the Minnesota House of Representatives, Uncle Burnett's old haunt. 

When I came home from St. Paul, I was full of stories. There was nobody I wanted to tell them to more than Uncle Burnett. 

But when I saw him, Uncle Burnett was agitated. He had a lecture in him and he was going to deliver it. 

Out into the yard he went. I followed. "Never, never, antagonize anybody unless you have to," he said. 

"You never know who you'll need and when you'll need them," he went on. 

The monologue continued back on the deck. 

Never, ever write off an opponent, Uncle Burnett preached. There will come a time when you need a culvert in Norman County and he'll need a culvert in Stearns County and you'll have to trade votes to get it done. 

"When that time comes, you'll wish you had been nice!" he said, ending the lecture three inches from my nose.

It took me a while to figure out what had triggered Uncle Burnett's speech.  

Turns out, I had written an article about the man I considered the worst representative in St. Paul. The politician in question was such a numbskull that when the entire House tried to pass a minor bill with his name on it just to be nice, he blew it and the bill failed. 

In the article, I had great fun at the hapless representative's expense.

  Uncle Burnett didn't like it one bit. 

You never know, Uncle Burnett said. You might be down in St. Paul one day and you might need that man's vote to get something done. 

Why needlessly anger people whose help you might eventually need? 

It was a valuable lesson in civility and kindness, a good lesson to learn whether or not I'll ever need legislative approval for a culvert in Norman County.