BERLIN – Berlin’s colorful mayor for nearly three decades,
John Howard Burbage, Sr., who held the position through the turbulent 1960s,
70s and 80s, passed away last Sunday at the age of 90 at his home in Ocean
City, leaving many of his colleagues and contemporaries to reflect this week on
his life of service to the town.
Burbage served as mayor of Berlin from 1962 to 1988 and
the town went through some significant changes over the nearly three decades in
office. His 26-year tenure as mayor is believed to be the longest in any town
in Maryland past or present.
Called “Mr. Berlin” by many of his long-time friends and
contemporaries, Burbage was born in Snow Hill and was raised as a farmer before
taking a job as a clothier with Greenberg’s Clothing Store in Selbyville, Del.
He later opened his own clothing store, Style Guide, in downtown Berlin in an
era before shopping centers and strip malls. He owned and operated Style Guide
on Main Street in Berlin for 36 years before he retired in 1993, and,
ironically, the store was the site of one of the most colorful episodes in his
long tenure as mayor of Berlin.
During one particularly heated election in the early
1980s, Burbage’s opponents questioned his residency status and he proved his
point by setting up a bed and other amenities in his storefront window on Main
Street and slept there for at least one night while the issue was resolved. The
incident gained national attention and was featured in newspapers and
television news programs across the country.
Local attorney and de factor town historian Joe Moore, who
served as town attorney under Burbage for 14 years, fondly recalled the famous
“It was during an election in the early ‘80s,” he said. “I
was the attorney who was able to secure an opinion from then-Attorney General
Steve Sachs that John Howard was indeed a resident of Berlin.”
Moore said he had fond memories of serving as town
attorney under Burbage.
“John Howard hired me as the town attorney back in 1974
and I served in that capacity all through his tenure as mayor after that,” he
Moore said Burbage was a steady leader at the top for
Berlin for nearly three decades.
“He was a terrific mayor and a great guy,” he said. “I was
proud to have served with him.”
Some of Burbage’s colleagues in town government said the
long-time mayor did not always get the credit he deserved for leading Berlin
through nearly three decades of change.
“I always thought he should have gotten a Berlin Award,”
said Roland “Sonny” Atkins, who served on the town council for eight years
under Burbage. “He did so much for the town. He was Mr. Berlin.”
Atkins said he and Burbage often clashed over some issues,
but in the end, the best result for the town was usually achieved.
“We had our differences, but that’s what made it work,” he
said. “That’s democracy. Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, he always
had the town’s best interest at heart.”
Burbage emerged as mayor of Berlin in the wake of the last
effort to sell the town’s municipally-owned electric plant, during which many
on the council either resigned or were voted out of office. Ironically, the
same issue is being fiercely debated decades later.
“I served with him on the council when he was mayor,” said
Skip Quillen, who was a councilman for years under Burbage. “The mayor and my
father were instrumental in saving the electric plant the first time around.
Here we are all these years later and it’s still a big issue.”
Burbage is also given credit for nurturing the effort to
bring a community hospital to Worcester County and the Berlin area, although
Atlantic General Hospital did not open until several years after he left
“There is one thing, and it might be a small thing, but
there’s a plaque in the lobby at Atlantic General that lists the Mayor and
Council members and his name is not on it,” said Atkins. “He was so instrumental
in getting that hospital. I’ve always thought that should have been taken care
While Berlin was relatively stable during Burbage’s 26
years as mayor, he was largely responsible for laying the groundwork for the
town’s growth over the last decade or so. He was the point man on the town’s
effort to expand its sewer system, which increased the town’s capacity and
opened it up to new growth. Moore fondly recalled the epic battle to get the
spray irrigation site approved by the state and county.
“One memory that stands out is when the town was trying to
get that spray irrigation site at Libertytown,” he said. “John Howard sat in
the auditorium at Snow Hill Middle School until four in the morning making the
case for that and he eventually got it. That’s been a significant method of
dispersing wastewater and it has allowed the town to grow.”
Throughout his long tenure as mayor, Burbage gained the
reputation of being particularly stingy when it came to spending the town’s
“He was very, very tight,” said long-time Berlin resident
and county attorney Ed Hammond. “He didn’t spend much money for the town, which
was a good thing. He was a fiscal conservative.”
The result was a solid financial position for the town of
Berlin, according to Quillen.
“He was very fiscally conservative and so was the
council,” he said. “He wouldn’t spend a dime if he didn’t have to and the
town’s finances were rock solid.”
Other long-time residents this week fondly recalled the
more personal side of Burbage. For example, current Councilman Gee Williams
said Burbage fostered an atmosphere of dignity and class in the town’s
government that carried over to its citizens.
“He was always impeccably dressed,” he said. “He always
had an air of friendly formality that I think still exists in Berlin.
Particularly during town meetings, he had an air of civility that set the tone
for the town. That’s disappeared over the years little by little, but I think
Berlin retains that and it’s because of John Howard.”
Williams said one of Burbage’s biggest accomplishments was
being a steady influence during the racially-charged 1960s and early 70s.
“I remember his leadership qualities, especially during
the ‘60s and “70s when he helped shepherd the town through the civil rights
era,” he said. “When he took over as mayor, Berlin was still very much
segregated. During his tenure as mayor, Berlin encouraged full participation
from all of its citizens.”
Berlin was relatively quiet and peaceful at the time when
much of the nation was coming unglued, according to Williams.
“The concerns that were felt nationwide applied to Berlin,
of course, but there was never any of that hostility,” he said. “He preached
respect for everyone and it always came back to that civility. It’s a part of
Berlin history the people of this town should be proud of.”
Burbage’s influence on the local area goes beyond his
tenure as mayor of Berlin. For example, he was owner and operator of Ocean
Downs for many years and served on Maryland’s Racing Commission. He is also
given credit for first bringing cable television to Berlin. He was a member of
the Evergreen Masonic Lodge 153, the Boggs-Disharoon American Legion Post 123,
and a lifetime member of the Berlin Lions Club.