By Patrick Miller, University of Kansas, and Michael Smith, Emporia State University
Our friend and Insight Kansas co-contributor, Dr. Burdett “Bird” Loomis, died on Sept. 25, 2021. Though he never sought elected office, Burdett epitomized a life well-lived in public service. His passing leaves a gigantic hole in civic life in Kansas.
We knew Burdett best as a public citizen who wrote about politics and mentored students. We cannot do him full justice here. His local political activism, scholarly research, love of art for political expression, and myriad other aspects of this multifaceted man could be separate columns themselves.
In over 30 years as a political science professor at the University of Kansas, Burdett taught, mentored students, and published research. But describing his job tasks doesn’t do him justice.
Political science today is often focused on making broad conclusions about politics using “big data” and statistics. But, Burdett was gloriously old school in his approach to understanding politics, relishing in the dramatic trees of political life when others often preferred the forest. He was a storyteller who appreciated real human connections with those involved in the politics industry. If they were lucky, they got an invitation to his house for a cocktail and conversation.
Burdett’s commentary about Kansas politics came with an extra deep layer of understanding because he actually knew many people left, right, and center that he talked about—governors, legislators, key activists and lobbyists. He knew their personalities, motives, and sometimes even their fears. That deep memory of Kansas politics cannot be replaced.
Burdett was realistically honest about politics. He liked to quote an old-fashioned cartoon character named “Mr. Dooley,” who said, “politics ain’t beanbag.”
Nonetheless, he was fundamentally civil about politics. Though occasionally sarcastic and often pointed, he genuinely believed that people who disagree can compromise for the public good to make life better for more people without dwelling on point-scoring theatrics, profiteering, or ego.
He appreciated honest disagreement and, as he once told a colleague, had little appetite for “jerks,” whether he agreed with them or not. He could be genuine friends with people he shared nothing in common with politically, and critique ideas without demeaning the person—a skill that many have lost.
In recent years, Burdett often lamented to us that detailed policymaking and the maximal public good have lost much of their centrality in politics. He feared what that meant for Kansas’s future. That was always a sad conversation to have, but it revealed his core concerns as a public citizen.
Burdett’s legacy will also live on through his students, many of whom have shared stories on social media since his passing about how he helped shape their life trajectories.
He was especially proud of his work running the KU Political Science Department’s internship programs for Washington and Topeka. Hundreds of students completed his program over the decades, including several from other Kansas universities. Many went on to careers in public life as elected officials, policy professionals, advocates and activists, and career public servants. And many of them credit Burdett’s mentoring through the internship program with putting them on that course to public service.
This was Bird in a nutshell—loving politics (as he once knew it) and passionately advocating for an honest and smart political process that elevated the common good. He is irreplaceable, but we know that political life in our state is better for his involvement.