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John Burgess: a life well lived on the internet

I thought about making this anonymous, but I don’t think there’s anything that John Burgess and his family wouldn’t want to share. And maybe they’ll see this and contact me with additional details.

Recently, for reasons of my own, I googled “what does turtle taste like”. One of the top hits was an excellent answer from John Burgess on Quora:

The flavor of turtle runs across a spectrum of fishy-to-beefy, depending on the variety and the method of cooking. Sea turtles — most of which are now protected species — actually fall on the ‘beefy’ side, often being compared to veal in both flavor and texture, though with abundant and savory fat. Fresh water turtles tend toward the ‘fishy’ side, though also fattier than most fish.

Land turtles or tortoises, I find, are pretty much indistinguishable from other reptiles, whether snake or alligator. ‘Chickeny’ would be an apt description.

What a good and complete answer! And as often happens on Quora, I was drawn down a rabbit hole, this time by Burgess’ profile description: “A diplomat is one who is paid to dine for his country; I’ve done so globally.” Well!

When you get to his profile page you find that Burgess has written over 12,000 Quora answers on every topic imaginable, a lot of them on the Middle East (and specifically on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or KSA) where he was stationed for many years. His answers are invariably terse yet complete, objective and informative. No wonder he is a “top writer” on Quora, a designation I have not seen previously.

I say “is” when referring to John Burgess because his words are as fresh and relevant as when he wrote them, but I noticed something: he wrote 13 answers on January 26, 2016 and two on January 27, then never wrote again. I also noticed the word “remembering” above his profile, something else I’ve never seen on Quora. I realize that John Burgess, the man, is dead.

I googled “John Burgess obituary Sarasota” knowing that was where he lived from some of the posts, and got confusing answers including an unrelated scoundrel who was arrested for DWI. Then I tried “John Burgess obituary Sarasota born 1947” because I’d been able to extrapolate that birth year from some of his posts. It pulled up this wonderful obituary which was posted by his high school.

John Burgess seems to have had quite a life. He saw the world as a foreign service officer and made the most of the opportunities his travels provided. In retirement he used his experience as a consultant for various media and film producers. He was thoroughly involved in Sarasota, where he was a fan of the local historic architecture and also sport fishing.

I don’t know when Burgess retired, so I don’t know how much he got to enjoy his post-foreign service years. He was just 69 when he passed, so I’m hoping he mustered out well before age 65. I also don’t know whether his death was anticipated or sudden. On January 26 he was writing pssionately about many subjects, then three weeks later on February 16 (his 69th birthday) he was dead. If he suffered, it wasn’t a long illness.

And what is kind of majestic about all of this, what we know and what we don’t know, is how John Burgess lives on through the Internet. His life and his knowledge are there for us to share, thanks to Quora. May we all be so generous and fortunate when our time comes.

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