The patch sewn onto his work shirt read “Marion,” but he was always “Mr. Burcham” to me. Marion P. Burcham earned the distinction of becoming the first non-baseball player inducted into the Aardvark Attic of Appreciation, predominately for the role he played during the formative years of my baseball card collecting. Unfortunately, the honor must be awarded posthumously as Mr. Burcham passed away on March 17, 2007 at the age of 96.
I had been kicking around this idea to write about Mr. Burcham for quite a while, being of the opinion that it is important to remember real people and celebrate their contributions made to our society, while reflecting on how these true heroes stand firm in stark contrast to the transparent greed, corruption and scandalous behavior that is commonplace amongst our leaders and favorite sports heroes. I also hope that you will read between the lines in order to take away from this article, the importance of having access to a physical location to purchase trading cards rather then relying entirely on interweb dealings with people who might just as well be numbers. This is especially true for the younger collectors.
Marion Burcham was the owner of the Sunoco Service Station in Toulon, the diminutive, west-central Illinois town of that served as the backdrop of my childhood. One of less than a handful of businesses in town that sold gasoline, the Sunoco station was our Mecca. The candy case within- our shrine. Mr. Burcham was believed by many to be some sort of wizard, always managing to have that old case stocked with best selection of candies and trading cards in town.
Of course, Mr. Burcham didn’t JUST deal in candy. Practically any issue we encountered with our bicycles- handlebars requiring adjustment, a chain dropped off the gear sprocket or a flat tire, could be cured with a quick trip to the Sunoco station. Far from instinctual, this behavior was learned from having watched Mr. Burcham help keep our fathers’ automobiles on the road year after year.
Believe it or not, a time existed in this country when you could pull your car into a filling station, and an actual person would greet you at the pump and begin servicing your vehicle. In my opinion, Mr. Burcham blew the doors off the competition. He would check the oil, give the engine a good look to make sure everything was working properly, inspect all four tires for excessive wear and proper air pressure, and literally scrub the windshield leaving it showroom clean- all while filling the gas tank. Most importantly, he performed these services, and probably many that I was unaware of, all with a friendly smile on his face. Plus, you only paid for the gas, and possibly the motor oil if your car needed more than half a quart.
Kids flocked to the Sunoco station after school in an effort to spoil pending dinners. The candy case, which doubled as Mr. Burcham’s checkout counter, was constructed largely of glass, wood that had once been painted yellow and more glass. The glass was instrumental to the success of the case as it allowed customers to conduct preliminary shopping while Mr. Burcham was busy servicing a car. One of the fabulous things about Mr. Burcham was that he would excuse himself from his grownup customers long enough to run in and make sure the kids were taken care of as quickly as possible. He knew that we had BIG things to get done, such as playing a game of ball, trading cards, or riding our bikes down to Indian Creek to throw stuff off the bridge.
As luck would have it, I recently obtained a photograph from Mr. Burcham’s son after explaining that I wanted to share it with my readers. As an unexpected bonus, “John” also provided me with a number of very interesting stories about his father and the service station ranging from everyday business practices to intriguing accounts of robberies and fraud. That these things had gone on in a town where few people locked their doors was unimaginable!
I selected the 1976 Topps style baseball card to “frame” Mr. Burcham’s photo due to the fact that the bicentennial took center stage in middle America. It was also the year that I made the most trips to the Sunoco station.
In 1976, kids could, and DID, purchase baseball cards in mom and pop grocery stores and gas stations similar to the Sunoco station all across America. It wasn’t easy saving money that I got for Christmas or my birthday, but I did because I wanted to buy baseball cards when they came out in the spring. Every instance when I found a dime on the ground, or got paid for doing lawn work around town resulted in a trip to the Sunoco station. I was addicted to baseball cards! I was never really tempted by the packages of Chuckles or Snickers candy bars even on the days when I was informed that the new supply of cards had not yet been delivered. Disappointed, but not wanting to leave empty-handed, I would usually pick up a few pieces of Bazooka bubble gum, or a package of five baseball-shaped gumballs that I think were produced by Fleer.
Besides exhibiting the patience of a saint, Mr. Burcham was also extremely generous. He provided free coffee for customers 364 days per year, and for the town cop 365 nights per year. More than once, I found myself sitting in the middle of the back seat of the family roadster, flanked by my older brother and sister who held the luxurious window seats as my father informed Mr. Burcham that we were off to visit the grandparents for the weekend. As if sensing the grueling three-hour trip I was about to endure, Mr. Burcham would silently pass me a few packs of baseball cards through the window as if they were a Styrofoam cup of free coffee. The man understood his customers!
During any random lazy, dog day afternoon I could walk into the Sunoco station, purchase 50 cents worth of baseball cards, hand Mr. Burcham two quarters and receive either a dime or a dime and a nickel in change. If your transaction worked out so that you purchased the last pack in the box, you took the box with you. If you purchased the next to last pack in the box, you generally walked home with not only the box, but also an extra pack of cards. It was a beautiful system! For years, I couldn’t imagine buying cards anywhere else.
While the majority of the world lived in fear during the summer of 1979 that “Skylab,” the first United States space station, was going to plummet from the heavens and crash into their house, Mr. Burcham stepped up to the plate and painted a target on the ground over one of his buried gas tanks. Similar to a knight called upon to fight a dragon threatening a village in mythical times, he was more than willing to take one for the team if necessary. It is the sort of gesture that is hard to forget.
The Sunoco station closed a few years later, having been purchased by the State Bank of Toulon. It seemed that the entire county turned out to watch the demolition of the old fortress, but here I will admit that time might be playing tricks with my memory. I’m sure that those people who feared change had either stayed home or were sticking to their normal routine, but everyone else was there. It was a surreal day that I really never wrapped my head around.
As proof that my personal memories weren’t clouded from my addiction to baseball cards that he supplied, Marion Burcham received what is arguably the highest recognition in the area when he was selected to serve as the Stark County Old Settlers badge honoree during the annual celebration in 1999.
Born during the summer of 1910, Marion would have only been two years old when the Old Settlers Association dedicated the monument to the Stark County pioneers that still stands on the courthouse lawn. The monument was also dedicated to Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom had delivered speeches near that spot on successive days during fall of 1858. It would have been interesting to have heard the speech that Mr. Burcham delivered a decade ago, or to read a transcript of it today.
Completely unrelated, as far as I know, is that I didn’t spend more than ten bucks on baseball cards between the years of 1982 and 1999, the time between the demolition of the Sunoco station and Mr. Burcham’s Old Settlers speech.
Special thanks to John Burcham and Jason Musselman for taking time from their busy schedules to provide me with the photos of Marion manning the candy case and the 1999 Old Settlers badge respectively.