When you go to meet a three-star general for lunch, you don’t show up late.
We agreed to meet at Hamilton’s on Magnolia in downtown Auburn, and although I cracked the door five minutes early, retired Army Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess Jr. was, to no surprise, already inside with a booth selected and talking on the phone.
He would get four more calls during our energetic hour-long conversation together, but that’s to be expected of a man who privately advised two United States presidents on the country’s most critical national security issues.
Current President Donald Trump wanted him, too, but Burgess wanted Auburn more.
Don’t read politics into that, especially since he has served presidents of both parties. It takes only seconds to read between the lines that Burgess is a no-nonsense, all-business, military-trained candid speaker when it comes to vital state secrets and advice that could change the course of history.
Ronald Burgess, however, also has a magnetic personal side to him, and affectionately for his beloved Auburn University and many local friends and neighbors, the Opelika High School graduate is simply: Ron.
Highest in the land
He was wearing a spring-fresh bright yellow polo shirt and certainly fills it much better than would most 65-year-olds.
Well, check that. Better than most 55-, 45- or even 35-year-olds. He still values the military life well enough to stay physically fit.
And mentally fit. Just ask Auburn University President Steven Leath, who earlier this month convinced Burgess to take on a new role serving the university as its chief operating officer.
If that wasn’t enough, when Leath’s chief of staff unexpectedly resigned for another position, Leath piled on, asking Burgess to serve as interim in that role, as well.
Burgess, of whom “anyone in the military who knows me will tell you, I bleed orange and blue,” loves Auburn University.
The 1974 graduate, who launched his military career from Auburn’s ROTC program after then-guidance counselor Frank Gregory at Opelika High helped him land a scholarship, already was serving the university since his highly decorated retirement from the Army in 2012.
Burgess previously served as Auburn’s senior counsel for national security programs, cyber programs and military affairs, a field in which the university is growing quickly and has passionate support from Leath, who is advocating a much stronger mission in research.
His service in that role gave Auburn instant clout. Burgess has a long, impressive resume that includes having served as the 17th director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, making him at the time the nation’s highest-ranking military intelligence officer.
The Lord’s humor
“You don’t get to the level he got to in the military without an incredible work ethic, being smart, and a number of other things,” Leath said with a thankful smile when speaking of his new COO.
“Those were all things that in an ideal world, I’d be looking for in someone like that. It’s a little unusual to waive someone into a position like that, and I would say it will be a relatively rare occurrence for me at Auburn. But I think there are times when you’ve got to be nimble and make decisions, and I think that was a really good one.”
Leath also admires and appreciates the passion Burgess shares for his alma mater.
“I was looking for someone who had a lot of perspective, some appreciation for Auburn, who was not going to shy away from the tough business conversations or the tough business decisions,” Leath said. “And if you look all around for that kind of combination, I was fortunate to have someone in Ron.
“What we’ve done is put Ron in that job, and he’s excelling.”
Perhaps the person most surprised in Burgess moving from so-called semi-retirement into such an important administrative role was, Burgess.
“I am living proof the Lord has a sense of humor,” he said with a big smile.
A shared mission
Burgess is the kind of business man who cuts right to the chase.
Generals are known for doing that, and expecting results. But what helps define Burgess’ leadership style is that he is meticulous in gathering information and opinions from others before setting strategy.
“Do we need to be changing the way we do things? Are we implementing the right business practices?” he asked about the university’s operations. “I think you have to do a lot of listening, and I am doing a lot of listening right now.”
He feels it will take 3-6 months to better understand the many connections under the school’s administration umbrella and to determine the “problem-facts-decision” prefacing any suggested changes.
The move from military to academic environment “is something different, but in the end, we’re all trying to do the same thing” in pursuing useful results.
Burgess keeps a copy of the university’s mission statement visible on the left side of his workbook. He refers to it often and is able to recite much of it from memory.
“The first thing I ask is, ‘folks, how does that relate to our mission at Auburn University?’” he said.
Judging by his demeanor and sincerity, the answer should be a good one or come with a suggestion for change.
He’s a local boy
The softer side of Burgess shines with the glimmer in his eye when he speaks of his college sweetheart and now wife, Marta, or when he purposely drifts into proud conversation about his five children and baker’s dozen of grandchildren.
A North Carolina native, he moved to Opelika for his senior year of high school when his father accepted a new position with the postal service. Burgess played football for Opelika High and was elected “Most Friendly” in his Class of 1970.
When he returned to the area after retirement from the Army, he and his wife moved to a rural area in Lee County and far away from his previous military outposts or the beltway in Washington.
He calls this home.
We shared stories about our youngest: His youngest son is an Army lieutenant serving with an artillery unit; my son is a Marine lieutenant serving special duty at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.
Burgess is gracious and kind to express support and encouragement for me to pass along, and I greatly appreciate that.
My son, who like Burgess and myself is an Auburn graduate, met the general in autumn a year ago. Burgess was speaking about cyber security, and the lack of; also explaining to the crowd how every one of us who uses any kind of electronic device is leaving behind digital footprints.
It left a lasting impression on my son, and it indicated to me that the general in Burgess may include some old-school military in him, but he certainly is in front of the parade in the new-school thinking necessary for America’s defense today.
Maybe that’s why his phone is constantly ringing. Plenty of high-ranking people in this world are aware of his dedicated expertise.
I’m glad he’s on our side.
I’m glad my alma mater has him.
I’m glad I now know him well enough to, at his invitation, call him Ron.
I just hope he doesn’t mind if, ever in passing, I give him a respectful civilian salute instead of just a wave.
He’s certainly earned it.
Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.