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The minister of truth

In January, I was invited to deliver the "Call to Unity" at the Durham Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Celebration along with the student body president from North Carolina Central University. It was to be held at Union Baptist Church, a major African-American Baptist church in Durham, with hundreds of community members, City Council, the mayor and the district attorney in attendance.

Having worked with NCCU and the city government on various Duke-Durham initiatives in the wake of the lacrosse allegations, I was pleased to have received the invitation. But as a Duke student, asked to address a packed Baptist church in the aftermath of the lacrosse allegations, I was, shall we say, scared out of my mind.

So I bugged John Burness.

Given his position as the University's principal spokesperson and his nickname as the "Minister of Truth," I half expected him to use our meeting as an attempt to bolster University prerogatives, to toe the line and tell me what to say and what not to say. Instead, he drew on his unmatched knowledge of the Durham community, telling me what to expect, helping me channel my experiences into something resembling a coherent message and reassuring me that the situation was not as dire as I had originally imagined.

Mukhtar Raqib, my then-counterpart, and I delivered our respective speeches Jan. 15 to a standing ovation. The one hiccup involved then-Durham district attorney Mike Nifong, who awkwardly pushed aside several parishioners to introduce himself to me; some may criticize my restraint, but with portions of MLK's famous "love your enemy" sermon still fresh in my mind, I elected not to beat him to a pulp.

John's encouragement and counsel, which he has lent to so many at Duke over his storied 16-year tenure, helped transform that experience from one that was potentially terrifying to one that was ultimately exhilarating.

And beyond the trials of the lacrosse situation, John has consistently been willing to engage me in the variety of positions I've held since coming to Duke. Upon the announcement that his departure from the University will roughly coincide with my own, while The Chronicle and various news outlets are reflecting on his publicly documented accomplishments, I must thank him for putting up with me for the past three years. That he did, for so long, says a lot about him and about his commitment to the University, particularly to student; I'm not necessarily easy to deal with.

Our relationship began my freshman year, when I called him demanding various internal documents on University finances, and it continued as I scrutinized public records on the University's income and expenditures. I eventually wrote a column on the University's tax return, which John felt the need to write a guest column refuting. Subsequently, we discussed issues ranging from the University's purchase of 12 off-campus houses formerly occupied by students to the (lack of) detail in the University's financial statements and the Durham Police Department.

Although we often came down on different sides of various issues, he was ready and willing to take time out of what he described in an e-mail announcing his retirement as "70-plus-hour work weeks" to engage me-but not without humorous jabs here and there.

As a columnist my sophomore year, I more or less accused a trustee, two senior administrators and two alumni of having conflicts of interest with respect to the University's now-defunct contract with the food service provider ARAMARK. After the article ran and I collided awkwardly with John outside of the Allen Building, he contorted his rotund figure into something resembling a tree and joked that conspirators were all around, hiding in the forest.

But now the conspiracy theories surround him. Comments on various blogs and The Chronicle's Web site suggest (without any evidence) he is being fired for his handling of lacrosse. For what it's worth, during an interview with me two years ago, prior to lacrosse, he indicated that he would likely retire by the end of this year.

And many more comments argue that this is a positive development for the University. Despite our various disagreements and the recent controversy over the handling of the lacrosse case, I cannot agree with that assessment.

What matters is what John has done for the University, and his exploits have been well documented since the announcement of his retirement. The unfortunate fact is that relatively few students have frequent contact with him, and those who do are largely concentrated in The Chronicle, Duke Student Government and the Community Service Center. Most don't understand exactly what he is responsible for and by extension how hard it will be to replace him.

But believe me, it will be.

Elliott Wolf is a Trinity senior. His column runs every Thursday.


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