Thomas W. Burdette, who won back-to-back lacrosse championships as a goalie at Princeton and owned the country's oldest paper tag-making company for nearly three decades, died of pneumonia on March 28 at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson. He was 82.
The U.S. Army veteran, who went by "Tiger," a nickname from his wrestling days at the Gilman School, was quick-witted and funny, with a near-photographic memory — a consummate storyteller, said his wife, Carol Eakin Burdette.
Mr. Burdette had no shortage of wild stories — he'd talk about jumping from planes or hunting geese on the Eastern Shore — but he balanced his boisterous, athletic side with a refined love of art, wine and antiques, and an unwavering devotion to his family, Mrs. Burdette said.
"Very few people knew this dedicated, caring side, which I always saw," she said. "He was the old-fashioned gentleman."
Thomas Wilton Burdette was born in Baltimore on Jan. 16, 1936, to Harry Marshall Burdette and Lavurne Lewis Burdette. He excelled academically and athletically, graduated from Baltimore City College at age 17 and attended Gilman for a year, playing varsity football, wrestling and playing lacrosse, Mrs. Burdette said.
That year, 1954, Mr. Burdette won the Maryland Scholastic Association wrestling championship for his weight class at Gilman. At Princeton, he wrestled and played lacrosse — goalie for all four years — including on regular-season Ivy League championship teams in 1957 and 1958.
Mr. Burdette worked as an account executive at VanSant Dugdale & Co. Inc., which was once Baltimore's largest advertising agency, then briefly for Colonial Life & Accident Insurance, before buying U.S. Tag with a partner, Carl Hecht, in 1969. They subsequently added a label-making division and renamed the firm U.S. Tag & Label.
They sold the tag division, which made luggage tags used by cruise ships and mail tags used by the U.S. Postal Service, to West Virginia-based Champion Industries for $1.1 million in stock in 1995. Mr. Burdette told The Baltimore Sun at the time that he had turned down more lucrative offers that would have shuttered the company's 30-worker East Baltimore plant.
"It would have been more money, but we weren't going to have them close the plant," he said.
He married Mrs. Burdette in 1983, two years after an earlier marriage to Gwendolen Gorman ended in divorce. He had two children from the first marriage; he and Mrs. Burdette had another two and lived in Owings Mills.
Mr. Burdette earned a reputation at Princeton during his first week, when he and his classmate A. B. Krongard stole the iron clapper from the bell at the top of Nassau Hall.
It was the final iteration of a tradition in which freshmen tried to steal the clapper the night before the start of term, so the bell wouldn't ring for the first day of classes. The sophomores' job was to prevent it, Mr. Krongard said. (Princeton has since moved to an electronic bell.)
"We were being chased," Mr. Krongard said. "We just took off running for our lives."
Mr. Krongard, who went on to become executive director of the Central Intelligence Agency, never had to answer for the theft in his CIA polygraph test. But he said he would have if they had asked.
"That's one of the proudest things in my life," he said. "I'd be damn happy to tell the truth."
One of Mr. Burdette's wrestling teammates there, Albert Muse, became his college roommate and a lifelong friend. The two would travel to Manhattan for parties in college, and they later took weekend trips to the Eastern Shore to go goose-hunting, Mr. Muse said.
"We were both good shots," said Mr. Muse, 82, of Pittsburgh. "We got our quotas."
Those weekends are among Mr. Muse's fondest memories, he said.
"He was always a very loyal, great friend," he said. "We always got along extremely well."
After college, Mr. Burdette served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division. The first lieutenant was stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., and eventually worked as public information officer. He continued his service as a reserve officer for eight years, earning the rank of captain, Mrs. Burdette said.
While others were nervously chain-smoking cigarettes in the plane before jumps, Mr. Burdette would take a nap, she said.
His time in the service yielded him one of his favorite stories, Mrs. Burdette said. On one jump he was leading, a paratrooper landed in a tree in the dark and hollered out to the others that he couldn't tell how far he'd have to jump down to the ground.
Mr. Burdette answered him with a tap on the shoulder: He was only 2 feet up.
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A member of the Maryland Club, the Greenspring Valley Hunt Club and the Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier, Pa., Mr. Burdette loved to golf, served on the board of the Maryland Historical Society and enjoyed gourmet dinners and fine wines with the Baltimore Wine and Food Society.
"You could say the wine, and he could tell you the grapes in it," Mrs. Burdette said.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on May 11 at the Church of the Redeemer at 5603 N. Charles St.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Burdette is survived by four children: Timothy W. Burdette and Marjorie "Shari" Tompkins, both of Baltimore, and Charles E. Burdette and Thomas M. Burdette, both of New York. He had five grandchildren — a sixth is on the way — and two nephews.