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.