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News > OP updates > Obituaries > Prof Jeff Burley CBE RIP

Prof Jeff Burley CBE RIP

Jeff at his graduation
Jeff at his graduation

Professor Jeffery Burley, CBE
16th October 1936 – 27th December 2021

Jeffery “Jeff” Burley was born on the 16th October 1936, in Portsmouth. An only child, his father was an electrical power engineer. His birth mother died when he was 12, a tough thing for any boy approaching his teens to have to deal with.

He joined Portsmouth Grammar School in September 1946 and left in July 1954. He was in Whitcombe House. He played cricket for the 2nd XI in 1953-54 season, winning his colours in 1953. He also played rugby for the 2nd XV in the same years. Jeff was in the CCF Army section, reaching platoon commander level and completing his advanced signals course at Catterick.

It was somewhere during his PGS years that he developed his extraordinary ability with the English language and his attendant writing and editing skills. Jeff had a razor sharp mind and an almost photographic memory.

Jeff was awarded a Hampshire County Major Scholarship which, after three intervening years of national service, would take him up to New College, Oxford, to study forestry. But to the army first it was (he elected to serve three rather than the usual two years, as the monthly pay was better) and he made the rank of Temporary Captain, in the Royal Signals. He ended up as Officer in Charge of a Signal Troop, attached to a Heavy Artillery Regiment. He later became Training Officer of the-then Driver Training Regiment.

Not many people are aware that the globally known forester and conservationist was also an accomplished heavy truck driver. He was quite put out when the DVLC of the era unilaterally decided that - at 55 years of age - he no longer really needed an HGV licence that allowed him to haul a main battle tank around, and took it back from him. 

He also completed the military despatch rider course, on an ancient British Matchless military motorcycle.

With his first degree in forestry now in the can, he crossed the pond to Yale to take up a research scholarship leading to a Master of Forestry (specialising in Forest Genetics) and then a PhD.

At some point in the late 1950’s, the paths of Jean Shirley Palmer and Jeffery Burley crossed, in the impossibly romantic location of the antibiotics research lab on South Parks Road – the heart of Oxford University science research and teaching. South Parks would become the major focus of Jeff’s entire working life, culminating two decades later in his appointment as Professor of Forestry.

Going back at bit now, from ‘65 to ‘68 he cut his practical forestry teeth running projects in Zambia, Malawi and the-then Rhodesia.

Returning to the UK and Oxford again, by 1985 he was Director of the Oxford Forestry Institute (OFI), and a Professorial Fellow and Vice-Warden of then-named Green College (to be later known as Green Templeton College - GTC). He gathered many more titles and responsibilities over the years, including 5 years (out of 20 years involvement with the organisation) as the head of the global forestry body IUFRO, before finally hanging up his gown in 2004, having by now travelled to over 100 countries on consulting duties.

His literary career was as prolific as his travelling. He was single author 161 times, joint author 178 times and he conducted 56 other literary reviews. There are, somewhere, 67 still-unpublished reports carrying his name. Jeff’s extraordinary CV extends to 42 pages.

Jeff was guest of honour at the OP annual dinner in 1999. In his speech he spoke of his career in forestry and the wonderful foundation that he had received at PGS which had enabled him to successfully pursue it.

He referred to the School's extremely high academic reputation over the years and reminisced about a few of the "characters" on the staff during his time at the School.

He later mentioned that he remembered Ernie Wells as “an outstanding teacher” of a whole range of biological principles and who devised many good working experiments - he was highly committed ahead of his time to what would, nowadays, be called nature conservation and biological diversity. Jeff, of course, would have been a good judge of Ernie.

In 2006 he hosted the OP Oxford dinner (personally conducting the tour of the Radcliffe Observatory while narrating its history, about which he had written a book). He was a donor to the Bristow Clavell Science Centre.

In December 2004, aged 67 and after deferring his initial retirement date, he finally gave up his OFI role. He had lost a long battle to prevent higher powers from closing the department, probably what hurt him more than anything else in his professional life. Jeff had done all he could to defend it but the department was gone for good. The importance of the OFI, its ground-breaking work over many decades and its enduring legacy message is beyond question and it is ironic that the department that was responsible for driving the closure of it at the time is, today, reintroducing forestry into its curriculum.

Jeff also spent a happy period working with Jimmy Carter of US Presidential and salted peanut fame at his Conflict Mediation Foundation.

Back home, his final official function at GTC was in September of last year, as the cancer finally started to take hold of him.

Jeff had known he was ill with cancer for the two years preceding his death. He took the initial news calmly and pragmatically and bore the pain of it and the miserable after-effects of the various treatments silently and stoically, never once complaining. He was still working in his beloved house and garden in leafy Oxfordshire in late September of last year. He declined rapidly over the months of November and December and, after falling into a coma on the 24th December, he finally lost his battle on the morning of the 27th. His wife and two sons were by his bedside at home at the end. He was 85 years old.

Jeff’s funeral was held in Tubney Church, just outside Oxford, on the 20th January, the same location as his marriage to Jean 60 years earlier and their local church throughout. His ashes will be interred in the church graveyard in the spring of 2022. A larger, more “forestry professional” oriented memorial service is in the early stages of planning now, hopefully to be held in the middle of this year at one of the Oxford Colleges to which all who knew him will be welcome.

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