Carter L. Burgess

Carter Lane Burgess was born on December 31, 1916, in Roanoke, Virginia, and was an American soldier, business executive, and diplomat. The Washington Post once described Mr. Burgess’s military advancement in World War II as “meteoric.” The strapping military policeman became aide-de-camp to Gen. Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith, chief of staff to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In the mid-1950s, then-President Eisenhower named Mr. Burgess assistant secretary of defense for manpower and personnel. He overhauled the armed forces reserve system to face Cold War threats and oversaw legislation to improve military benefits involving life insurance and medical treatment. He also mobilized forces to assist in drought relief in Western states. His service in the private sector proved no less auspicious. He rose from insurance claims adjuster to president of Trans World Airlines and American Machine and Foundry, maker of automatic bowling pinsetters and other devices.

He took over the ailing TWA in 1956, just before his 40th birthday. Reportedly the youngest president of a major airline, he helped restore it to profitability. Mr. Burgess once said he could “get through to anyone in America” because of his contacts in and out of government. He had a stint as ambassador to Argentina in the late 1960s, followed by a few years as chairman of the National Corporation for Housing Partnerships, a body authorized by Congress to promote private construction of lower-income housing.

His economic foresight led to jobs on corporate boards. During the oil crisis of the 1970s, he persuaded reluctant board members of Ford Motor Co. to proceed with expensive plans to build a European model called the Fiesta, which became a success. He once told Fortune magazine he could be “too insistent” at times, leading to clashes with management and other boards.

From 1974 to 1981, he was chairman of the New York-based Foreign Policy Association, a nonprofit education group focusing on foreign affairs. At the association, he helped create the World Affairs Council of Washington, a nonpartisan organization. He moved to his native Roanoke in 1980 and was a trustee emeritus of the George C. Marshall Foundation.

Carter Lane Burgess, the son of a railway routeman with Railway Express Agency, was a 1939 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. He worked for Railway Express Agency as a baggage handler and water boy to pay his college tuition and joined the Army Reserve after leaving college. He was called to active duty in 1941. A chance encounter with Gen. Smith led to a lifelong friendship between the two, and Mr. Burgess became executor of his will.

During the war, Mr. Burgess was assistant secretary of the general staff for the Army Air Forces headquarters in North Africa, and secretary of the general staff at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces. He was administrative secretary of the Casablanca Conference in 1943, where Allied leaders formulated the demand for “unconditional surrender” from the Axis powers. He told an interviewer he did the “pick and shovel work” at Casablanca, ensuring that French generals such as Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud had identical numbers of balconies and towels in their villas.

During his encounter with Winston S. Churchill, the British prime minister was said to have hummed “Oh, Susanna” to the Southern-accented Mr. Burgess, believing he was from Alabama. He left active duty as a colonel, and his military decorations included the Legion of Merit. After the war, he was a top aide to business and university leaders and served as deputy executive secretary of the International Secretariat at the 1945 U.N. conference in San Francisco, where the U.N. charter was drawn up.

He resigned from Defense in 1956 to take over TWA. He helped persuade Eisenhower to approve an around-the-world air route for TWA, which Pan American also had at the time. He left TWA in 1957 over policy disputes with Howard Hughes, who owned the parent company.

He was inducted into the Southwest Virginia Business Hall of Fame in 1997 and passed away in August 2022.

Carter L. Burgess was inducted into the Southwest Virginia Business Hall of Fame in 1997.

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