I remember the day I learned the lesson about returning phone calls.

I was young, not long out of college, working at another newspaper and feeling pretty good about myself until my managing editor called me into his office.

In his hand was one of those pink message slips from days gone by. Yes, Virginia, there was a time before voice mail when people actually took messages and wrote them down.

So there was Charlie Byars, the kind of guy whose list you don't want to be on, waving this piece of paper and saying, "This guy says he's left you three messages and you haven't returned his call. Why not?"

I immediately said I was so busy and had so much to do and. ...

"Well, you'll have plenty of time on your hands if you don't return this call," he bellowed. "It's not only your job, it's the right thing to do."

Passionate audience

More than 35 years later, I still heed his advice when the nice lady on my voice mail says, "You have 16 new messages."

Some, of course, are just routine. Some are complimentary. Others are not.

But I always call them back. Always.

It was really fun back when I was a sports columnist. When you write sports you attract a very passionate audience that's not shy about telling you what they think of what you wrote the day before.

The best ones usually came in about 2:30 in the morning when somebody was inebriated and decided to let me have it in rather profane and vulgar terms.

Most didn't leave a name or number, of course, but Caller-ID gave me all I needed to know.

Haggard, hung-over

When I'd call the number back the next morning, a raspy voice would answer, and I'd say, "Good morning, this is Ken Burger at The Post and Courier newspaper, and I'd like to thank you for the message you left for me last night."

After an awkward silence, a haggard, hung-over soul would say, "Oh man, is this really Ken Burger?"

"Yes," I'd say. "And I really appreciate you taking the time to call and tell me what you thought about that column."

Another pause would follow, and I'd hear, "Hey, man, like you know, that wasn't me saying all that stuff."

"Really?"

"Yeah man, you know, that must've been my brother-in-law. He gets drunk and comes over here and uses my phone. It must have been him."

"Well," I'd say, "please tell your brother-in-law I appreciate it, even though some of those things he suggested I do are physically impossible."

Eventually, the guy would laugh, fess up, and we'd become friends before it was all over.

Calling people back, you see, is a sign of respect, even if they don't deserve it.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598 or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Ken_Burger.