Joyful noise

SARANAC LAKE – A year ago, no one in Saranac Lake had ever heard of Ruth King, a successful blues singer and songwriter from the Orlando, Florida, area.

This weekend, she was embraced by the community like a long-lost relative.

King headlined a packed-house benefit concert Saturday night at the Waterhole in memory of Preston Burl, the Saranac Lake firefighter who King calls “my superman.”

Burl caught a then-4-year-old King when she fell from the burning St. Regis Hotel on the morning of Jan. 14, 1964. King, whose mother was also rescued in the fire, never knew the name of the man who caught her until last year, when she and Burl reconnected for a brief but heartfelt telephone conversation. Less than two weeks later, he died of cancer at age 80.

“I said, ‘This is the girl in the fire. You caught me. I fell into your arms,'” King told the audience Saturday, recalling her conversation with Burl. “He said, ‘Oh, yeah. Hope you’re looking a lot better now than you did then.'” The line that drew big laughs from the crowd.

“From what I understand, if he were here to speak tonight, because I feel he’s here, he’d probably look at my hair and say, ‘Yeah, you look just as bad now,” King added, and the audience roared. “That’s what I think he’d say, because I feel like I got to know him through his beautiful children and his wife, Barbara.”

King flew from Florida to Plattsburgh on Friday. She spent the day Saturday touring around Saranac Lake and visiting with members of the Burl family, with whom she’s developed a close bond.

“She’s really, truly become my sister,” said Thalene Bates, one of Preston and Barbara Burl’s six children. “That’s the way we look at it. That’s the way we talk about it. It’s such a genuine connection. Over the course of the year, we’ve been together numerous times. She’s been to our home. We’ve seen her perform.”

King’s visit in Saranac Lake included stops at the village firehouse and the former site of the St. Regis Hotel, now a parking lot at the intersection of Bloomingdale Avenue and Broadway. She also got to ride on a fire truck with members of the Burl family. When it arrived outside the Waterhole, fire department members in their dress uniforms were lined up outside to greet them.

“It’s difficult for me to put into words what this means for the Saranac Lake fire department and the members,” said Chief Brendan Keough. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-career event for us. Not only, 50 years later, to have someone come here and honor an important part of our history and raise funds for us, but to remember and honor Preston Burl and his family.”

During an on-stage presentation, Keough gave King and her mother, who lives in North Carolina and couldn’t make the trip, fire department challenge coins, which are carried by firefighters, law-enforcement personnel and members of the military as a symbol of their fraternal bond. King and her mom were also given St. Florian medals; St. Florian is the patron saint of firefighters.

Keough also presented a new award the fire department has created called the Ruth King Valor and Community Service Award. It was given to Barbara Burl and her family, “in memory of Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department past chief Preston Burl for valor and exceptional bravery on January 14, 1964, at the St. Regis Hotel fire. His selfless sacrifice, commitment and faithful service to the Saranac Lake fire department will never be forgotten.”

Barbara Burl said the tributes to her late husband by King and the fire department were both amazing and overwhelming. She also acknowledged that he wouldn’t have wanted the recognition.

“He would be very happy that it was a benefit for the fire department, but he would not want everybody to concentrate on him,” Bates said. “It’s about the fire department and the community. He did what he was supposed to do.”

The idea of inviting King to perform at a benefit for the fire department was the idea of Elizabeth Whipps, who bartends and hosts an open mic night at the Rusty Nail bar on Broadway, near the fire station. Whipps said she was inspired by an Enterprise story about King reconnecting with Burl.

“Elizabeth called me I don’t know how long ago with this great idea,” Keough told the audience. “She said, ‘I’ve never done anything like this before in my life,’ but she felt compelled and called to put this event together, so we owe her a huge round of applause.”

King, who grew up in Plattsburgh, has talked openly about the racially charged hostility she often felt in the North Country as the child of a mixed-race couple. Since reconnecting with the Burl family and the community of Saranac Lake, however, she’s said she feels accepted and embraced. Saturday’s concert amplified that feeling even more, King said.

“I feel pure joy, and it gives me a lot of hope in humanity,” she said. “There’s an awful lot to the contrary in this world, but to have one building with so many caring and open-hearted people, it makes me feel so loved and welcomed. I expected one portion of this goodness, but it’s been multiplied by a thousand today.”

After her performance, King signed autographs, posed for pictures and hugged just about everyone in the room. She said she plans to return to Saranac Lake soon.

“I’m going to come back every chance I get,” she said.

Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.