Appropriately, perhaps in some spiritual sense, I walked over to the propane tank on the grill on Sunday night to begin cooking dinner for a guest.

Where there had been a flame a few minutes earlier, there now was none.

Dan Burke, I thought.

My thoughts had been on him much of the day. Locally, he was known as the founder of the Portland Sea Dogs. To me, he was among the top two or three business executives I have ever known and his example continues to be an inspiration.

The former media executive died on Wednesday at age 82.

A former colleague at Capital Cities/ABC had phoned me earlier on Sunday to say that Dan’s health was deteriorating quickly. He served as the top operating executive at Capital Cities for most of his career and along with its chairman, Tom Murphy, had engineered the mammoth purchase of ABC. It was as if a minnow had swallowed a whale.

So, I’d been thinking about him all day, about how much I admired him and how much I learned from him when I was an editor and publisher of Capital Cities newspapers.

He had what I would call a scolding sense of humor where, if you were the target of a barb, you were not quite certain if he meant it affectionately or as harsh criticism.

When he was near retirement in 1994, he did a farewell tour of sorts and stopped by the paper I was publishing in Texas. It was late fall but still warm, so I suggested he come to my house for dinner with our department heads. I proudly offered to cook.

As the drinks flowed, I occasionally walked by the grill with its top closed after I had lighted the burners. I noticed that no heat seemed to be rising, but I was nonchalant.

Finally, on one walk-by, Dan stopped me, grabbed my elbow and walked me to the grill.

“You realize it’s not on, right?” he asked.

I was out of propane.

“No problem, Dan,” I said. “I’ll cook inside.”

He frowned.

It was already late and everyone who was not drinking heavily was hungry and tired.

I told everyone to move inside, where I commenced cooking marinated swordfish over the burners of a stove. The marinade dripped onto the stove burners. The house filled with smoke, but I soldiered on and served everyone. The smoke was heavy in the dining room and the guests coughed and sputtered and ate.

Throughout this ordeal, Dan glared at me with those steel blue eyes. The look pierced. Somehow I didn’t feel injured because I imagined – or liked to imagine – that he actually found the evening clumsy but predictable, and me funny. My lack of concentration was a trait he had seen before.

As his longtime business partner Murphy said Wednesday, Dan had irreverence about him. He loathed formality and airs of superiority.

As the dinner ended, one of the guests asked him to explain the genius of Capital Cities, which had grown from a small broadcasting and then publishing company to own ABC, the media giant.

“No genius,” he said, “Lots of common sense.”

He and Murphy ran the company on a loose rein. If you were lucky enough to be an executive running one of the company’s properties, you ran it as if you were a local owner. Your obligation to the communities you served and to the employees was tantamount.

There were no corporate, written rules telling you what you could and could not do. It was an amazing culture that fostered independence and offered the foundation to learn, often by failing.

During the summer of the same year I attempted to grill without propane, I had been asked to meet Dan for lunch in Portland. After we ate, he brought me to what would become the Sea Dogs’ home park. You could get the sense of the stadium, but the only visible sign of a baseball team and business was a trailer that served as an office.

He explained that from that tiny trailer, the Sea Dogs were selling more memorabilia than any other minor league team and they hadn’t played a game.

One of the secrets was the cool mascot and logo, which resulted from involving people from the community and incorporating their suggestions. They were the ones who would become patrons and fans, and still are.

It was a great common-sense idea that involved the fans. But it’s the type of thing too few in business employ.

Probably few in this community knew they had a business legend in their midst all these years.

What they knew is what he would have wanted them to know: There’s a professional baseball team here that it is run like a business so that the team continues to provide fun and entertainment at an affordable cost to Mainers.

Dan Burke’s legacy to our city and state may be one of the best he left behind.

Richard L. Connor is CEO of MaineToday Media, owner of The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. A newspaperman for 40 years, he has served on two Pulitzer Prize for Journalism nominating committees. He can be reached at:

[email protected]