While he was a journalism graduate student 39 years ago, Stephen Burgard wrote his first bylined piece for the Globe, a view of the world from Fenway Park’s bleachers that was at once whimsical and finely observed. He touched on everything from music to meteorology, and paused to glance skyward as Jim Rice “fired a space shot into orbit over the center field wall that may still be circling the globe.”
That home run surely fell to earth, but Mr. Burgard’s career took flight from those sunny afternoons looking up from homework to watch batting practice. Beginning as a reporter in New York’s suburbs, he rose to spend a dozen years as editor of the editorial pages of the Orange County edition of The Los Angeles Times, before returning home to teach at Northeastern University and direct its School of Journalism.
Along the way, he wrote about the confluence of media, religion, and government, and the need for more perceptive and comprehensive reporting in that realm. “A truism through more than two centuries of American history has been that religion is good for democracy,” he wrote in the Christian Science Monitor in August 2002, adding that the year following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks revealed “the profound fact that the reverse also is true, that democracy is a good thing for religion.”
“The press as a key democratic institution has a vital role in carrying forward this idea,” he wrote. “While journalism and religion always will view each other with some suspicion as free spirits under the Bill of Rights, the profane press now has some justifiable claim on being its holy brother’s keeper in democracy’s rowdy household.”
Mr. Burgard, who was on sabbatical from Northeastern to work on his third book, died Sunday in Massachusetts General Hospital of a lung ailment. He was 66 and lived in Arlington.
As a professor and administrator, he reached easily across departments and disciplines, and he put that collaborative approach to use a few years ago when Northeastern formed the College of Arts, Media and Design. “Steve was really instrumental in building this new college. He helped create its identity at Northeastern University,” said Bruce Ronkin, the college’s interim dean.
“He played an enormous role here helping build the reputation of Northeastern University as one of the top universities in the country,” added Barry Bluestone, director of Northeastern’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.
Mr. Burgard “was a strong advocate for our program at a time when industry and institutional pressures were calling into question the importance of journalism education,” said Dan Kennedy, interim director of the School of Journalism.
At Northeastern, known for its co-op program that places students in work environments, Mr. Burgard helped aspiring reporters and editors through contacts forged in a “deep journalistic past of being a practitioner,” said Nicholas Daniloff, former director of the university’s journalism program.
“He was a terrific director of the School of Journalism because he brought the real world of journalism into Northeastern,” Daniloff said. “He learned how to influence the tangled bureaucracy of Northeastern and, I think, use that influence very much to promote the interests and well-being of the School of Journalism.”
Stephen D. Burgard spent much of his youth in Cambridge, where he and his older sister, Beth Dater Jennings, lived with their grandparents Raymond and Helen Fitzgerald. Helen was part of a longtime Cambridge family and Raymond was the state’s deputy education commissioner for many years. “We felt fortunate to be part of the heritage that they imparted to us,” said Beth, of New York City. “We were very blessed to come from a very culturally rich and educationally focused family.”
Their parents divorced and their mother, Joan Fitzgerald Snow, remarried and taught at Wellfleet Elementary School. From boyhood days, when Mr. Burgard spent summers sweeping courts at a Provincetown tennis club, and on into adulthood, Cape Cod was “nourishing to both his spiritual and recreational sides, a place for respite,” said his brother, Christopher J. Snow of Provincetown.
Mr. Burgard graduated from what is now Buckingham, Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge and went to Brown University. While there he began studying with Swami Sarvagatananda and became involved with the Vedanta Society. In the following years, Mr. Burgard kept connections with his family heritage in the Catholic Church, alternating Sundays between Mass and the Vedanta Society while in the Los Angeles area.
After graduating from Brown in 1970, he served in the Navy aboard the USS Little Rock, where a chaplain asked if he’d like to help put out the ship’s newspaper. That launched a journalism career that took him to Boston University for a master’s and into a succession of jobs that led to him becoming editorial page editor at the Advocate in Stamford, Conn., his steppingstone to The Los Angeles Times.
“He’s probably the most selfless person that I have ever known in my life,” said Sharon Baker Burgard of Lexington, whom he married in 1988. “He was extremely intelligent and extremely well-loved, and admired by everyone who knew him.”
At the Times, Mr. Burgard won awards for his writing and was part of the staff that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
In 1997, he published “Hallowed Ground,” which he described to a Buckingham, Browne & Nichols publication as a book that examined “how we get beyond the battles of the religious right versus the secular left, and mobilize the religions in our midst to make a better people.”
Mr. Burgard and his wife, who divorced a few years ago, had three children by the time they moved back to Boston in 2002.
While at Northeastern, he published “Faith, Politics & Press In Our Perilous Times,” a collection of essays by various writers. He was working on a new book, “A Battlefield of Values: America’s Left, Right and Endangered Center,” cowritten by Benjamin Hubbard, professor emeritus of comparative religion at California State University, Fullerton.
In addition to his former wife, sister, and brother, Mr. Burgard leaves a daughter, Helen of Lexington; two sons, Drew of Claremont, Calif., and Patrick of Boston; and another sister, Robyn Snow of Brewster.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Saturday in Andover Chapel at Harvard Divinity School.
Mr. Burgard “always wanted to find the path to the absolute truth,” his daughter said. “My brothers and I are realizing how much he taught us at a very young age to prepare us to deal with the world.”
And though Mr. Burgard and his wife had parted ways, “we were working on trying to get back together,” she said. “By the end of his life, we had told each other that we loved each other. I have that to treasure for always, that we came to that realization before he died. I’m grateful for that.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.