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To a Man, It’s a Bug’s Life

Burbank native and John Burroughs High School athletics legend Brian Hurst doesn’t do anything halfway.

It’s how he’s lived his life, almost all 88 years of it here in Burbank. It’s how he spent his career, which he dedicated in full to fostering student athletes at JBHS. When Hurst takes something on, it’s for life, and that goes for his car too: a 1959 Volkswagen Beetle. He calls it his bug.

The Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the moon landing, eight recessions, the information age. And for more than a half-dozen decades and hundreds of thousands of miles, it’s still Hurst’s bug.

The engine has been rebuilt twice, but the car still looks the same as the day he bought it in 1959 in Berlin, Germany. Hurst was stationed there during the Cold War while the city was under the veil of the Iron Curtain.

The city was divided at the time by the ideological barrier that split not just Berlin, but the world. Though the Berlin Wall wasn’t erected until 1961, Hurst was constantly reminded of the reality of the division.

“We were on alert at all times,” Hurst told the Leader. He recalled a time when tensions spiked, and Soviet soldiers were prepared to push into the western bloc.

“I think the easiest way to simplify it was it was scary. The Russians were going to go through the Brandenburg Gate, and I was on duty as our recoilless rifles driver. I thought this is absolutely crazy. They had all kinds of tanks and things were escalating. But everything stopped at the gate. Cooler heads prevailed,” Hurst said.

While on tour in Berlin, Hurst and an Army buddy got the idea that they would bring home European cars. Hurst was drawn to an Austin-Healey, a sporty two-seater convertible.

“Then I thought do I really need a sports car? I’m not gonna be a young kid much longer,” Hurst said.

So he went for a VW Beetle in arctic white, which he shipped home at the end of his tour. Upon arrival in the states, he took his time driving each of his friends home to their respective states on his way to California.

“It was admittedly a bit packed in the bug with two army buddies and three duffel bags,” he said.

And then he was back home. Back to Burbank and back to the love of his life. It didn’t take long for Hurst to pop the question. In typical Hurst fashion, he did it while in the car stopped at a red light.

“So, I picked him up, at the time he was teaching at John Muir. We stopped at the stoplight at the corner of Bethany and Glenoaks. And he said, ‘Oh, hold this for me.’ And that’s how I got my diamond ring,” Nancy Hurst said.

The two spent their honeymoon camping out of the bug, though it started out at Hotel Santa Barbara. Hurst had champagne and flowers waiting for his bride.

“But then the next day he said ‘OK, we’re going to go on a little trip.’ I did not know he had stowed a little pup tent and all the camping gear. So, we went to Wallaby Meadows in that VW,” Nancy Hurst recalled.

Not long after, the couple had children, two boys. As the boys grew up, their father was hired as athletic director at Burroughs, and made his way through the ranks as a basketball coach. A Burroughs alum himself, he picked up responsibilities as they came, also coaching water polo and various other sports, even teaching driver’s education.

When his sons came of age, however, they attended his rival school, Burbank High School. They lived in a house divided. It was no Iron Curtain, but the rivalry was heated.

So heated that father and son wagered a bet, and the bug was collateral. Brian Hurst betted that his Burroughs water polo team would triumph over his son’s Burbank High team. The evening of the game, Burroughs lost.

He took the loss in stride though and went to shake his son’s hand in admission of a game well-played.

“I had to admit they did beat us. I went down to shake my son’s hand. He pulled me into the pool. Yeah, I know. I hit a lane line and slit my eye. We laugh about it,” Brian Hurst said.

So, he lost the bet, and the stakes were high. The bug spent a few years painted Burbank High blue.

Brian Hurst spent almost 30 years at Burroughs and held the job of assistant principal for a large part of his tenure there before retiring. When it came time to build the new Burroughs campus, the gym was dedicated in his name, The Brian Hurst Gymnasium.

“The group responsible for naming the buildings settled on Brian for obvious reasons. He had a lifetime of experience, as a Burroughs student, then serving as a coach, which he just did so well. As athletic director and as assistant principal in charge of athletics, he made Burroughs athletics what it is today,” said Tim Brehm, Burroughs historian and former head of the photography department at the school.

“He was just highly respected. The kids just absolutely loved him. For his name to be put on that gym was just an obvious thing,” Brehm said.

Stolen once, rebuilt twice, the bug even had a career in entertainment. It showed up on the popular sitcom “The Wonder Years,” made an appearance in a Pepsi commercial and had its own track on a sound effects record.

Hundreds of thousands of miles later, the bug isn’t as famous as the man himself, who is so admired by his students, his peers, his family and his brilliant wife.

“He’s always laughing and telling stories. We have so many stories that you wouldn’t even believe it,” Nancy Hurst said.

She took a moment, looked at her husband and gave him a grin.

“Life’s great.”

First published in the April 29 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

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