A Giant Passes: Frank Burla

Frank Burla (photo courtesy of Chad Terpstra, Father the Flame)

Some make ripples across the surface of their hobbies. These small precise waves radiate outward and intersect with other ripples, combining for new directions and more complex patterns that undulate across the entire pond. It's an impressive dynamic. Frank Burla cascaded onto the banks of the pipe-smoking pond with the Chicago pipe show and launched waves that flooded back, carrying enthusiasts from everywhere tobacco burns, thousands of participants whose talents and experience and knowledge had never before been assembled in one place.

Frank Burla cascaded onto the banks of the pipe-smoking pond with the Chicago pipe show

The Chicago show has become an event that people from around the world joyfully anticipate. It has grown from pipes on card tables in Frank's basement to a resort-filling event saturated with comradeship, seminars, educational displays, unparalleled craftsmanship, rare tobaccos, the dissemination of ideas, and the opportunity to meet collectors, craftspeople, distributors, shop owners, and manufacturers who previously had seemed mere mythology. It's the Smithsonian of pipe expertise, the Walt Disney World of pipes, the red carpet for the Academy Awards of pipe personalities.

You can't throw a tobacco pouch in any direction at the Chicago show without hitting one of the best pipe makers on Earth, or point in the direction of the coffee station without inadvertently slapping a world-class tobacco blender, or tie your shoe without being tripped over by two collectors, an author, and a guy from across the street who came in wondering what could possibly cause all this commotion about pipes. It has been joked that were the Chicago show to be bombed, it would set pipe making back 50 years. An admittedly dark joke, but the show's concentration of talent is irreplaceable. It's an event the likes of which had never been imagined, and it has launched collections and careers that have spread throughout pipe civilization.

the [Chicago] show's concentration of talent is irreplaceable

Frank Burla did that. He would be the first to say that he was far from alone, that the dedicated members of the Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club made it possible, and that is undoubtedly true. But Frank was the master of ceremonies and the face of the show. He worked tirelessly and full-time to promote the event and gather interesting and talented personalities. His phone bills were staggering. He would spend the year leading up to a show by flying to see important people and telephoning others into the night, convincing them to attend.

[Frank] worked tirelessly and full-time to promote the event and gather interesting and talented personalities.

Frank passed away on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. His voice will no longer be heard at the show or on the phone, and the thousands of people who have grown to know him are now without his counsel, expertise, and friendship. He has left a permanent empty space in the hearts of pipe enthusiasts everywhere, his colossal personality to be missed far beyond our first stunned realization that a giant has passed.

His start was in collecting antique pipes, but before that he majored in Greco-Roman history at Loyola college and then volunteered for a four-year tour of Vietnam with the Army, joining the FBI upon his return. Why the FBI?

"I can't really answer that question except that they had areas that I was interested in, areas that I had worked in while in the Army."

Chicago Pipe Show

A career FBI agent, Frank would not talk about his professional life. The one maddeningly vague anecdote I was able to extract from him after months of wheedling revealed that sometimes when he was flying to some non-specific location, before the advent of cell phones, he could be called to the cockpit radio to talk with some non-disclosed important person who insisted it was imperative that they speak with Frank immediately. "But don't put that in an article," he said.

"You don't want it revealed that you sometimes flew on airplanes and that you occasionally spoke with people?"

"I know it sounds ridiculous," he said. "But when I left the agency I had to sign all these papers and non-disclosure agreements. I can't talk about it."

Well, I've revealed Frank's deep secret. I only wish the stern lecture from him that I'm imagining were real and immediate and appreciatively endured over a couple of bowls of fine tobacco.

Indeed, Frank rarely talked about himself, but he would talk about his own collection and about pipes in general, and much of his time at pipe shows was spent making introductions between people of similar interests. "Oh, you're interested in tampers, right? You need to meet this gentleman here, all the way from Kazakhstan who's doing terrific work with mammoth." Or, "be sure to attend the seminar on Barling pipes tonight; you'll meet some other collectors who can help you out." Or, "how's your GBD collection coming along, still missing a couple of key shapes? Meet this gentleman here who knows the entire history of the company and all of the collectors; he can help you." Because of Frank, many collections have reached fruition, many missing pieces of collecting puzzles have been found, and many relationships have been fostered that would lead to collaborations benefitting the entire hobby.

much of his time at pipe shows was spent making introductions between people of similar interests.

He was able to do that because of his own collecting experience. Over the years, Frank built his collection into a museum of pipe history. "I started with that museum in 1978 and I traveled all over the globe to buy pieces." He maintained a condo dedicated to that collection, filled with display cases housing rare pipes, sculptures, tins, accessories, tools, and a library of tobacciana that was used by researchers everywhere who would visit, study the texts, examine the exhibits, and advance their own knowledge. Eventually, when his health began to decline, he sold his museum and it is now on display in China.

He maintained a condo dedicated to that collection

"Two men and a translator came from China," said Frank, "and they said they would spend a couple of hours looking at the museum. They wound up being there for seven days, 12 hours a day. They wanted to create a museum for the public showing the evolution of tobacco from where it started to where it is today. They said they wanted to buy the museum."

Frank went through all the appropriate channels to be sure it was proper and legal and ethical to sell the collection. "My wife and daughters were concerned that if something happened to me, how were they going to disperse this big collection? So it was the right time, and we sold it with the promise that it was all going into a museum. Six months later I got a call: it would be five years before the property was built but in the meantime, my museum was established about 150 kilometers outside of Beijing, at the first emperor of China's palace annex. Several people from Europe and America attended shows in China and had the privilege of seeing it, and many of them said, 'Hey, your collection is on display there.' So, at least it's available to the public now."

His knowledge was a river visited by people from around the globe, and he was among the top handful of experts on antique pipes. Frank was also the first Doctor of Pipes, an award instituted by the Chicago club. Two Doctors are added to the fellowship each year, chosen from the most knowledgeable, experienced, and helpful people in the hobby and the industry, people who have spent at least 20 years making an indelible impression in their journey to advance pipe smoking everywhere. Among them are such luminaries as Tom Dunn, Rich Esserman, Ed Lehman, Rick Newcombe, Mary and Mike McNiel, David Field, Marty Pulvers, Fred Hanna, Tad Gage, Linwood Hines, Sykes Wilford, Brian Levine, and many more, now numbering 46. Frank was the first and was the guild's leader.

His knowledge was a river visited by people from around the globe, and he was among the top handful of experts on antique pipes.

He was also proud of his induction into the Pipe Smokers Hall of Fame. "I'm not sure how legitimate that award is, but I like it." Additionally, he was acknowledged as a certified kapnismologist by Pipe Collectors International in the '80s. He held many more awards, naturally. He was respected and admired by everyone, helping everyone he could, and he brought the hobby from vague pockets of expertise scattered around the globe to a community of cooperation and solidarity.

Frank Burla became instrumental in the advancement of pipe shows from the mid-'80s to the late-2010s, and his influence grew each year, the ripples he created continuously impacting the global community of pipe smokers. Many of us would not be here appreciating the pipes and tobaccos that we do were it not for Frank. We'll be riding his ripples and appreciating their source for as long as our tobacco smoke wafts upward and disperses in its rise toward the sky.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Broken Pipe Pipe Culture Pipe Makers


    • Robert Lawing on October 10, 2021
    • Very sad news. Frank was a fine pipeman. Wonderful essay Chuck. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Dan on October 10, 2021
    • My condolences.

    • Mark Clemente on October 10, 2021
    • Hi Chuck,Thank you for exposing us to the profound Mr. Burla! It’s so wonderful to learn and trek Frank’s world. Learning more about Mr. Burla, it’s my hope the younger generation steps up to secure pipes, tobacco’s, and the art to continue such a positive influence in the world! Let’s stand proud and honor Mr. Burla for his tireless contributions! 🙏

    • Rick Newcombe on October 10, 2021
    • Frank Burla was a giant in the pipe world, known for his influence, dedication and kindness. Thank you, Chuck, for writing this moving profile of a great man.

    • Jeff Weiner on October 10, 2021
    • I loved Frank. He and his family have always been gracious to all. Seeing Frank was always a highlight of the great Chicago show. As a criminal defense attorney, Frank and I would always kid each other about him arresting people and my defending them.Frank was loved by everyone in our hobby; his death is a terrible loss. Frank will forever be remembered.

    • DAVID SOMMER on October 10, 2021
    • Very simple and to the point RIP Frank.

    • paul willians on October 10, 2021
    • Frank will be well missed. I would have loved to have been able to visit his pipe museum.

    • Steve Monjure on October 10, 2021
    • Frank Burla’s incredible contribution to our hobby will be appreciated forever. His always kind ways and wonderful smile will be memories that I will hold onto. Chuck, you captured his persona in a way no one else could. Great job!

    • Phil Wiggins Glauser on October 10, 2021
    • Happy Pipes Smoking Awesome ❤️

    • Fred Brown on October 10, 2021
    • Chuck, thanks for a terrific picture of Frank Burla. I met him once on my only trip to Chicagoland Pipe Show. He told me a funny story, but skipped details, about FBI director Herbert Hoover. I did see just a smidgeon of his wonderful pipe collection. Sorry I didn’t get to know Frank better as have some of you much more knowledgeable pipe historians and collectors.

    • Greg Kowalczyk on October 10, 2021
    • I met Frank for the first time in the 1979-80 timeframe. He truly was an icon and the expert of the hobby. Most importantly he was a friend and will be missed! RIP Frank!

    • Rob Blanks on October 10, 2021
    • Every pipe smoker new and old should read this article. God bless the man.

    • Joerg Wittkamp on October 10, 2021
    • What for sad news. I met Frank first time in 2004 and since then, it was always a pleasure and a honour to talk to him every year at the CPCC. I will miss him ! Rest in peace.

    • Ken S. on October 10, 2021
    • Thank you Frank for your ebullient and generous nature. Smoke rings.

    • Ken S. on October 10, 2021
    • Thank you Frank for your ebullient and generous nature. Smoke rings.

    • Michael Loh on October 11, 2021
    • Even here in far-flung Singapore, the Frank Burla name send shivers down our spines. What a great man who has done more than anyone else for pipe smoking and pipe collecting enthusiasts. Rest in peace, Frank, and thank you so much for all that you have done, thank you for inspiring all of us to promote our craft, you will be sorely missed!

    • Smokebacca on October 11, 2021
    • That was a beautiful eulogy, Chuck. I never met Frank, only knowing of him from articles and interviews with those that did, but it is obvious how much he meant to the global pipe community. A powerful article, for a powerful man. No, I did not know him, but tears welled up in my eyes as I read of his passing, understanding who is was to our shared passion. Some refer to lost members of the pipe smoking community as "broken pipes", ...Frank is definitely a Rich Esserman-sized broken pipe!

    • Ron Smith on October 11, 2021
    • Well done tribute, Chuck. Thanks.

    • Richard Allan Muyco on October 13, 2021
    • I always enjoyed my visits at the museum. I learned so much from you. Times that I will always cherish. Rest in peace, Frank.

    • Kurt Eggemann on October 14, 2021
    • Frank had made the trip to Copenhagen in 2004 to visit friends and the European championship in slow-pipe smoking. In 2013 I met him again in Saint-Charles on my CIPC mission to pipe and tobacco in Europe. Unforgettable! RIP Frank!

    • Dan on October 14, 2021
    • If anybody would like to hear Frank describe his museum you can hear his voice on episode #51 of The PipesMagazine Radio Show. There is some humor, when he mentioned that some people that visited his museum would rub a certain statue's breasts for good luck and the rubbing was wearing off the stain and making the breasts of the statue shiny was funny to me. And according to what the guest were drinking that evening, some would say that the statue would come to life at night and attack them. I just think that the statue's nipples were sore and provoked it to anger 🤣 It was nice to put a voice to the man...

    • The Burla Family (Annette, Laura, Lisa, Chad & Jim) on October 20, 2021
    • Thank you Chuck for the most wonderful & heartfelt tribute we have ever read. I have to say it took us several attempts to get through it as we all had to grab for kleenex every other line...but this means the world to us to see how many lives our dad touched. Thank you for telling his story, thank you for sharing his humor, and most of all thank you to this hobby and industry for the friendship and many years of joy you all gave my dad. You all were his family. My dad loved the hobby certainly, but it was all of you who meant the world to him and gave his life fulfillment, friendship and joy. We have had many amazing memories over the years at those shows (including the ones in our house when we were younger). We will cherish those memories....and this article...forever. Love the Burla Family

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