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Originally published March 27, 2010 at 4:57 PM | Page modified March 27, 2010 at 10:14 PM

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Gonzaga star Judge Franklin Burgess a genuine legend

U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess of University Place, Pierce County, died Friday at 75 after a yearlong battle with cancer.

Seattle Times staff reporter


He loved the law. He loved people. And he loved Gonzaga basketball.

That's how friends and colleagues recall U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess of University Place, Pierce County, who died Friday at 75 after a yearlong battle with cancer.

"He was a legend on two courts," said U.S. District Chief Judge Robert Lasnik, noting that before Judge Burgess's impressive legal career, he was an All-American basketball star at Spokane's Gonzaga University.

"In both venues, he distinguished himself as a person of great talent and great humility, beloved by the people he played and worked with," Lasnik said.

Decades before NBA great John Stockton became Gonzaga's best-known basketball player, Judge Burgess put the school on the national basketball map: In the 1960-61 season, the 6-foot-1 sharpshooter led the nation in scoring, averaging 32.4 points per game, a feat especially striking considering that at the time, colleges hadn't yet adopted the three-point shot.

He set so many scoring records at Gonzaga — many of which still stand — that his jersey is one of just two the school has retired and hung in its McCarthey Athletic Center. The other belongs to Stockton.

But Judge Burgess might have been among the first to urge that basketball accomplishments be kept in perspective. He once told a reporter that when he was choosing among the colleges interested in him, he selected Gonzaga because, "They seemed to care about more than whether you could bounce that ball."

He would go on to become a successful attorney, the district's first African-American U.S. magistrate judge and its second African-American federal judge, following his former law partner, the late Judge Jack Tanner of Tacoma.

High-profile cases in his court included an attempt to block the Makah tribe's whale hunting, a challenge to the state's blanket primary-election system and the 2008 trial of Briana Waters, convicted in the 2001 firebombing of the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture.

Born March, 9, 1935, in the small town of Eudora, Ark., Franklin D. Burgess went to college in his home state for a year before serving in the Air Force from 1954 to 1958, then attending Gonzaga, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1961.

Following graduation, he played two seasons in Hawaii with the American Basketball League, precursor to the American Basketball Association, then returned to Gonzaga, where he completed his law degree in 1966.

He worked for the Tacoma city attorney's office before going into private practice in Tacoma in 1969. During the 1970s, he also served as a judge pro tem in municipal and district courts in Pierce County.

He was appointed a U.S. magistrate judge in 1981, and was tapped by President Clinton for a U.S. district judgeship, for which he was confirmed in 1994.

As a judge, his style was open, engaging and genuine, said longtime friend J. Kelley Arnold, a retired magistrate judge and former neighbor in University Place, southwest of Tacoma.

"Frank always had an audience. People would stop by from the probation office or the clerk's office or the marshal's office, mostly seeking his counsel," Arnold said. "He was always generous with his time."

Judge Burgess continued to hear cases after going on senior status in 2005, but also found time for causes, such as helping out at Habitat for Humanity house-building projects. He served as president of the local NAACP chapter, was active in numerous civic organizations and earlier this year was named a Washington State Elder of Distinction.

His beloved alma mater, Gonzaga, where he had also served on the board of regents — and from which his youngest daughter, Whittney, graduated last year — was never far from his heart. Even in ill health, he traveled to Las Vegas earlier this month to see his "Zags" play in the West Coast Conference Tournament.

"He was in extremely good spirits, but we knew it might be the last time we'd see him," said Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth. "He was a tremendous icon for us."

Roth said, "One of the reasons our players and former players revere him so much is for all the things he achieved since he finished playing basketball ... an absolute role model for our student athletes."

Survivors include his wife, Treava; daughters Cheryl Burgess of Washington, D.C., Carole Burgess of Las Vegas, Frava Burgess of Chicago and Whittney Burgess of University Place, son Steven Burgess of Tacoma; brothers Morris Burgess of Red Oak, Texas, Robert Burgess of Oak Park, Mich., Eddie Joe Burgess of Eudora, Ark., Charles Burgess of Belle Chase, La., and Kirby Burgess of Las Vegas; sisters Dorothy Jean Norman of Detroit and Gwendolyn Burgess of Eudora, Ark.; three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned for April 10, with the time and location to be determined.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or

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