We were putting together our year-end review and were going over a list of all the people who died in 2020 when we came across the obituary for Sherman F. Burnham (1931–2020), which caught our eye.
Burnham was born and raised on the Island, and went on to become a partner in the construction company Burnham and Magnuson in Edgartown. While he was much respected for his skills as a carpenter, it was his skills as a prankster that caught our attention.
There are people who enjoy the occasional practical joke, but Sherm Burnham elevated the prank to high art. And we thought, Who better to grace our April Fool’s cover than the master prankster himself — Sherm Burnham?
Jessica Burnham, one of Burnham’s three daughters, said growing up with her father was, as she put it, “a little unorthodox.” Burnham loved to pull the girls’ legs by telling them tall tales. “He’d come home,” Jessica said, “and say, ‘Hurry up, get your clothes on, kids, there’s a whale stuck under the bridge.’ Then the family would race out to the Big Bridge and Sherm would say, ‘Ahh, you just missed it, he must have gotten out.’”
Reflecting back on her father’s pranks, she said, “Sometimes we’d go in to take a bath and the tub would be full of turtles.” But apparently in the case of the three sisters, the old apple didn’t fall far from the tree. When the girls acquired a baby racoon, they knew just what to do with it. “We put it in the bathtub,” Jessica said, “to greet Dad when he went to take a bath.”
No one was really safe from Sherm’s hijinks. Jessica wrote to me in an email that “they lived in a close-knit neighborhood in Ocean Heights, Edgartown, and one night my dad and his friends moved everyone’s cars all over the neighborhood, so in the morning everyone had to go looking for their car to get to work.”
Jessica recalled another story involving one Raymond Teater, known as “Teaterbug,” whom Sherm had met when they were building a barn for James Cagney in Upstate New York. Teater returned to the Island to work with Burnham and Magnuson, and lived in a camp in back of the Burnham house. One night when Teater was away, the sisters helped their father rig a bucket of water over his door so that it would soak him when he came home. The problem was that Teater stayed out very late and the water froze by the time he got home, and it “clocked him in the head,” Jessica said.
Apparently Sherm’s brother Marvy had a knack for practical jokes as well; he once put a boulder in Sherm’s sink that was too big to lift out. Not to be outdone, Sherm planted a tree in the middle of Marvy’s driveway so he couldn’t get his car out. No one was spared from Burnam’s relentless pranks, not family, not neighbors, and especially not his co-workers.
John Magnuson, son of Sherm’s business partner George Magnuson, said that most of Sherm’s jokes were slapstick, Three Stooges type of stuff, and they were never mean-spirited. “He loved to nail your tool box to the floor, or put lead weights in it so you could barely pick it up. And heaven forbid someone would take off their shoes, they’d come back to see them nailed to the floor.
“One trick Sherm never seemed to tire of was putting Vaseline on doorknobs and watching someone’s reaction when they stuck their hand on it and got a handful of goop,” Magnuson said. Sherm had an aerosol spray can that smelled like sewage, and he loved to bring it to a job site, especially if there was a plumber there who would think there was something wrong with the septic system.
“When you got to a job site,” Magnuson said, “you always had to be careful, you never knew what might happen, but it was harmless, good-natured fun.”
Eric Magnuson, a longtime friend and co-worker of Burnham’s, said that everyone seemed to take the joking in stride: “Especially the new guys who couldn’t believe their boss was pulling these tricks on them. It kept everyone’s morale high and made the day go quicker.”
Sometimes the tricks were spontaneous, like when Sherm would nail someone’s shoes to the floor, but other jokes required preplanning. “When we’d go up to Aquinnah,” Eric Magnuson said, “Sherm used to arrange to have a car coming at him in the opposite direction, and just before they’d hit they’d turn away from one another, and everyone in the truck would go nuts.” Sherm apparently had a thing for stunt driving.
“Where we grew up, there was a junkyard way out behind our house, and we had an old car we were going to junk,” Jessica said, “and we piled in the car and drove around the junkyard, knocking stuff over like in a demolition derby — it only happened once, but we loved it, we had the best time, screaming and laughing.”
“Sherm loved to throw people’s lunchboxes in the fire,” Eric Magnuson said, and it got to be kind of a running gag. “The crew would throw Sherm’s lunchbox in the fire as well.”
“The guys did everything to Dad’s lunch box at work,” Jessica said, “they’d burn it, and they’d paint it and roll it in sawdust, but he kept using it — as kids we used to call it the suede lunchbox.”
As Burnham grew older he became addicted to golf. He played almost daily at the Edgartown Golf Club with a regular group of friends, and because they often played in the evening, they called themselves the Night Crawlers.
The group included Sherm, Bob Gardner, Ted Morgan, Dick McCarron, Arthur Winters, and Marty Mard. “The six of us had more fun than all the rest of the people on the course combined,” Bob Gardner said.
Burnham, as could be expected, had a fair share of golf tricks he would play on the course. There were exploding golf balls that kept everyone on their toes, and he loved scattering tees around that were flat on top, so the ball kept falling off. And then there was the day that Sherm filled Bob Gardner’s truck up with golf balls.
The Night Crawlers would show up every day after work, driving their pickup trucks. “But apparently one of the members became annoyed,” Jessica said, “at the sight of all those pickup trucks, and made the comment, ‘Well, I see the great unwashed are here.’” Which prompted the Night Crawlers to wear polo shirts inscribed with “The Great Unwashed.”
But this brings us to what will undoubtedly go down as Sherm Burnham’s finest hour. “For years my dad would talk about getting a gorilla suit,” Jessica said. “He thought it would be great fun to hide in the woods on a country road and then run out when a car was coming, and pretend he was Bigfoot.” So for his birthday, the girls surprised Sherm and got him a suit. But they could never have imagined where the gorilla suit would eventually end up.
“We were working at the Whaling Church, fixing some of the finials,” John Magnuson said, “and then suddenly, Sherm decided to go home and get his gorilla suit. He put it on and got on top of the roof and started pounding his chest and making noises like he was King Kong and people came running out of the bank and out of the town hall and out of the courthouse to see what was going on. Someone said it was a perfect time to rob the bank, because everyone was standing out on the street.”
On Saturday, March 18, 2020, Sherman Francis Burnham’s body was laid to rest at the Edgartown Cemetery. On his gravestone was an engraving depicting a gorilla hanging off the Old Whaling Church clock tower, drawn by his daughter, Rebecca Burnham.
A gorilla seated in a lawn chair stood guard over the site. The gorilla was wearing the hat that Sherm Burnham always wore to funerals.
The “suede lunchbox” containing Burnham’s ashes sat on a table, and two plastic flamingos and a “Gone Golfing” sign rounded out the tableau.
There in nutshell was the story of a man who went through life trying to bring laughter into people’s lives.
“Dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” Jessica Burnham said. “He really would have thought it was funny.”