In Memoriam: V. Joel Burnette

Joel Burnette

V. Joel Burnette

It was finals week. Sometime in the middle of the night I stepped out of the classroom where I was studying and into the hallway to clear my head. In my haze of frustration I heard the voice of my fraternity brother who always seemed to be around when I was struggling.

“What’s wrong, DeMar?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I replied, head down and shoulders slumped.

“I know what’s wrong,” he claimed. I glanced up at him.

“You feel like you aren’t good enough for any of this,” he said, “Like everyone is against you. Like tomorrow’s test is going to be the one that finally exposes you to the world as a great big fraud.”

Geez, I thought, it’s as if he is reading my mind.

“How did you know that?” I asked.

“Because we all feel that way,” he replied.

I doubt Joel Burnette thought he was going to change my life that night, but from that moment on, I assumed if I was scared then others must be scared and I would have an advantage if I acted with courage instead of fear. Twenty years later I’d say that mindset has served me pretty well.

Joel was a very good brother to me. Right now I’m wondering if I could have been a better brother to him.

When I received word on Wednesday that Joel was dead I was more sad than surprised. His adult life had been cruel and unfair. Like many of his other college friends, I hadn’t seen him in about a decade and the communication I had with him was in odd spurts on Facebook. Though he would play off his bizarre posts as a big joke, I couldn’t help but feel that something was wrong.

In 2011, I reached out to people I had hoped were still in touch with him, trying to get a phone number or something. My effort was half-hearted, as was almost everything in my previous adult life that didn’t involve a baseball, and after two dead-ends I stopped trying. We hadn’t spoken in 10 years and I was probably being delusional to think I could say anything at that point that would make a difference.

It’s just that now I’ll never know.

I don’t want to sound like a phony. I’ve thought of Joel often over the years but he hasn’t really been a part of my life since college and I’m not going to pretend I’m in pieces right now. He was, however, one of my closest friends during an important time in my life and I’m sad that I won’t ever see him again. I’m angry that his mind and body betrayed him and I’m sorry that I didn’t try harder for him. I can’t help but think he would have tried harder for me.

The only positive thing about us being out of touch for this awful period in his life is that I get to remember him as the wonderful human being the world should have been able to enjoy for decades more.

We met as pledges of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity at the University of Missouri in August of 1991. Me from St. Louis, him from Kansas City. I was an overweight, sarcastic mess who always looked like I had just rolled out of bed. He was a scrawny, blue-eyed, clean-cut kid with a great big smile that made him look like he was 12 years old. We became friends immediately.

Everybody loved Joel. He was considerate of the people around him, but loved a good prank. He didn’t mind pushing your buttons, but wouldn’t let you leave the room angry. If you were down, Joel was usually there to pick you up. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a bit jealous of how people adored him, but I couldn’t have resented him for it if I tried. He wouldn’t let me.

Through the years we could be found packed into a tiny room full of Delts and Delta Gamma girls watching 90210, picking water fights in the bathrooms, watching Raising Arizona for the millionth time or raising hell in the house or downtown. In 1995 he made his only trip to my house in St. Louis before we saw U2 perform at Busch Stadium, still the best concert I ever attended.

Most of the time we could be found somewhere lost in conversation. What Joel and I had more in common than anything was introspection. We were way too aware of who we were and what we imagined our roles would be in this world. He loved to play devil’s advocate and I never met an argument I didn’t enjoy.

I saw him for the last time around the turn of the millennium on a trip to Kansas City. Life had already handed him a few lemons and he was a more cynical person for it. His luster had dulled a bit, but he was still the brother I knew and loved. Now more than ever I’m thankful I took that trip.

So this is goodbye. It’s not fair, but Joel would have been the first person to remind me that life isn’t fair so no sense dwelling on that. I won’t stay sad, because he wouldn’t let that happen either. Others will find comfort thinking of him at peace now. I’ll think of him as being free from all that went wrong to enjoy what was once very right. To be happy. To be fun.

To be Joel.

Goodbye, brother.

About Matt DeMargel

Public Relations Flack, Health-Conscious Cyclist, Personal Finance Nerd, Global Wanderer and slightly deranged fan of St. Louis and Mizzou Sports. I only write when I have something to say, but I talk constantly!
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9 Responses to In Memoriam: V. Joel Burnette

  1. Steve Hudson says:

    Matt, thanks for writing this. When I heard about Joel’s passing Thursday morning it hit me hard. I have often thought about Joel and wondered how he was doing. One of the last times that I saw him was at Mardi Gras I think at your apartment with Willman. Joel was already very different than I remembered him in college, which you described to a “t”. I also remember the letters from Granny Sunshine and the infatuation with 90210. I fondly remember Joel listening to Jane’s Addiction and Nirvana in his room in the Delt Annex. There we would have numerous discussions about relationships, life and faith. We never really got anywhere because as you mentioned, he was a pretty good “devil’s advocate.” Joel had a special ability to connect deeply with anyone. I am sorry his life wasn’t better after Mizzou and truly wish I could have spent more time with him after school. Life happens and we go our seperate ways. Joel has gone his “seperate way” far too early. Thanks again for the reminder of the great memories of someone who always knew how to put a smile on my face too.

  2. Marty says:

    Nicely written…we’ll miss him!

  3. diane says:

    what a wonderful story – thank you for sharing

  4. June Paige says:

    Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt story with everyone. Joel definitely had a charismatic personality. He could light up any room. I miss him too.

  5. Mike Fulton says:

    Nice article Matt. I grew up one street over from Joel, and caught the bus from 7th grade through my sophomore year of high school right in front of his house, sitting on his porch every day waiting for the bus. We’d play jam ball on his basket in front of his house, and talk baseball (he was a huge Bo Jackson fan back in the day) all the time. Like you, I was friends with Joel at a certain time in my life but we kind of grew apart. I’d occassionally see him at MU, mostly when me and my friends went out for drinks at Johnny’s Beanery, where he worked as a server toward the end of school. I hadn’t spoke with my mom in a few months, but the last time I spoke she mentioned that Joel was going through some problems both with life itself and with health. I spoke with her yesterday, and she gave me the terrible news. I’ll keep his family in my prayers as well.

  6. Pingback: 7 things I’m incredibly thankful for | Matt DeMargel

  7. Joel suffered with one of the most brutal pain conditions on earth – Arachnoiditis. Our patient community will not forget him:

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