I might not have been as close friends with Burton Whitmon (Burt) Renager Jr. had it not been for a ukulele. In the fall of 1960 I was a freshman in medical school at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock and had gone to the lobby of Jeff Banks Dormitory to take a short break from studies. Seated on a couch surrounded by several other students was this short, nice looking, clean-cut guy playing his ukulele while singing a folk song with the group. The Kingston Trio was just becoming very popular, and they were singing “Tom Dooley” which was the signature song of the Trio. His playing and singing while not concert quality was pretty good, so I joined them in singing. I told them I would get my Gibson guitar and join them if that was alright. This was the beginning of a friendship born in Kingston Trio type folk music and nurtured through the years by many common interests including most of all, love of God, family, country and country music, especially Flatt and Scruggs bluegrass..
Burt was born and raised in West Memphis, Arkansas, the only child of B.W. and Elizabeth Crow Renager. His Mom’s roots had been planted in eastern Arkansas in the town of Elaine where she was raised on a large cotton and soy bean farm. After moving to West Memphis following marriage she and B.W. directed the operation and management of the farm which was subsequently passed on to Burt. We have joked often about the “current status of the soy beans in Elaine.”
Among Burt’s many talents during his formative years (apart from the ukulele) was flying private planes. After learning the skills of piloting he continued flying small aircraft for many years until only recently. Never one to refuse a challenge as a young man he told me he once flew a single engine plane under the large bridge at Memphis. For this act of bravery he received a reprimand from the Federal Aviation Board and had his license temporarily suspended. He told me he suspected he had been reported by the one who challenged him and was angry he had lost the bet over the stunt.
Burt was focused on his pre-medical studies in college and graduated with honors from Memphis State University before entering medical school in the fall of 1960. His initial goal was to become a family physician like his own doctor whom he admired. In those early days none of us really knew what rigorous training lay ahead, and where our paths would lead. It was important to have an outlet to help relieve the stress of the academic world, and music was a good one for us.
Our playing and singing gigs during the first year in medical school were lots of fun, and we probably spent too much time honing our musical skills in various ways. We made a memorable trip one weekend to Mountain View, Arkansas to the Jimmy Driftwood Folk Festival and even played a few of our songs on the square while surrounded by ten to fifteen mountain folks. They seemed curious to hear what these “city slickers” could do, but I don’t remember them being very impressed with our style of folk music. We were not invited to perform on-stage that evening, but loved the people and enjoyed the music which was everywhere on this weekend in Mountain View.
I wrote about one of our more unusual performances in a previous post (One Night at the Rackensack). Burt had a gift for generating a background story for the songs we performed when in reality the songs we played and sang were mostly learned from albums of Flatt and Scruggs and recordings of Bob Dylan and others. We thought we were the only ones who really knew the truth concerning those stories.
Burt’s professional career took a turn following our freshman year, and he dropped out of medical school to pursue a military career. I’m not sure his initial intentions were career military, but the war in Vietnam was beginning to escalate in the mid 1960’s, and all young men in those days were subject to being drafted into the war effort. Burt became a junior officer in the United States Navy via Officer’s Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island in 1965. About this time he married his longtime sweetheart, Paula Kalder also of West Memphis, and they started building their family and life together in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Early on Burt spent a tour of duty in Vietnam commanding a Swift Boat, the modern analog of the PT Boat of World War II. Some of his exploits were recorded in a book written by Jim Guy Tucker. (Arkansas Men of War, Penguin Press, 1968). Jim Guy Tucker was a war correspondent when he wrote and published the book. He was later elected Governor of Arkansas and subsequently resigned following conviction for fraud in the Whitewater Affair.
Burt had a distinguished naval career and rose in the ranks to Captain before retiring in 1991. His last command was aboard the USS Farragut which was a modern class of missile destroyers. (See above photo). Under his command were over four hundred enlisted men and twenty-five officers. I thought he would stay on active duty in the Navy until achieving the rank of Admiral, but it was best for him and his family to retire when he did. Regardless I have always addressed him by this rank when calling and speaking to him by phone.
Burt and Paula have spent their years in Virginia Beach raising their sons Jason and Joshua who are grown now with their own families. There are five grandchildren to spoil and enjoy whenever they can be together. I don’t know if he has taught any of them to play a ukulele, but I’m quite certain he can still remember the chords to play and the lyrics to many of the songs we knew so well. Just like two old retirees, most of our songs are outdated.
It has been many years since Burt and I have been together, but we regularly stay in touch by phone, occasional letters and text messages. I’ve learned quite a few life lessons from him and even a few medical tips I have used which hearken back to our medical school days. (i.e. Schoettle’s Rule of XRay Diagnosis). I still believe he would have been an excellent family physician, but God had another career path for him, and he excelled in it. I thank God for that evening sixty-five years ago playing and singing “Tom Dooley” and I remember it as if it were only yesterday.