A tribute: William A. Burns, ‘The best principal I ever had,’ say those who knew and loved him

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(Before his death last week at the age of 91, William Burns, the principal of Central High School from 1967 to 1993, was preparing to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Central High School Hall of Fame Committee at its induction ceremony on May 6.  The following tribute, which was written for the program book distributed at the ceremony, has been edited to reflect his passing. Dr. Michael Murphy, Selma Naccach-Hoff, Jane Truncellito Clayton, Andrea Isaac Elliot, Charlene Kurtz, and David Scannell, members of the Central High School Hall of Fame Committee)


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IN MEMORIAM

William A. Burns

Principal

Manchester High School Central

1967 to 1993


For nearly three decades – longer than any other individual – Principal William A. Burns directed the fortunes of Manchester High School Central, the state’s largest, oldest, and arguably best public high school.  In so doing, from 1967 to 1993, he guided Central through its golden age, a tenure characterized by remarkable achievements in the classroom, on the playing fields, in the community, and in the country and world beyond Central’s Manchester campus.  

His death just two weeks ago at the well-earned age of 91 has given colleagues, students, community leaders, and close associates occasion to reflect on his career as a principal and as a role model to three generations of Manchester youth. Those called to reflect on his service to his adopted community have expressed their admiration with unique summations of his impact on the institution that is Central High School and the individuals who have lived and written its history.  All, however, come to the same conclusion that the role he plays in Little Green history is an outsized and profoundly positive one.  One phrase is repeated over and over by students and faculty members alike:  “The best principal I ever had.”

Some who knew him might be surprised to learn that Mr. Burns was not a Central alumnus, for he literally wore his green on his sleeve in the form of a series of green blazers that he donned to signify his allegiance to the Little Green. In fact, he was graduated from a rival institution – Hanover High School – and from the Big Green, Dartmouth, where his father, Ralph, was a faculty member.  

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From 1967 to 1993 Bill Burns guided Central through its golden age, a tenure characterized by remarkable achievements in the classroom, on the playing fields, in the community, and in the country and world beyond Central’s Manchester campus. Image/Central Alumni Facebook page

The youngest of three children, Mr. Burns was a big man on the Hanover High campus, earning three varsity letters and serving as student council president.  After being graduated from Dartmouth, serving his country as a naval officer during the Korean War, and earning a master’s degree from Tufts, he began his career as the teaching principal at Brighton High School in Island Pond, Vermont.  He and his wife, Susan Sperry, his high school sweetheart, then moved to Cape Cod, where he taught at Falmouth High School.  Next, he spent four years as the principal of Derby Academy in Vermont before moving his young family, including children Margo and Steve, to Manchester to begin his storied career at Central.

During his tenure, he confronted many challenges.  The mid-’60s were a time of enormous change in public education.  The conformist mindset of the 1950s had given way to demands for societal evolution and agitation to end the Vietnam War.  Furthermore, the American high school was under enormous pressure to adapt its curriculum to keep up with the rapidity of technological advancement demanded by the Space Age culture and the increasing racial and class diversity of its student body.  These challenges were exacerbated at Central by a campus that had outgrown its postage stamp footprint in Manchester’s center city and by a burgeoning student population that often exceeded 2,500 students 

The construction of the James Building and the acquisition of a freshman annex at the top of Lowell Street provided needed room to breathe, and Mr. Burn’s light touch and generous manner also allowed students and faculty members the breathing space they needed to adapt to changing times and their evolving roles in a large, comprehensive, public high school.  According to one colleague:  “What Bill Burns did during some really hard times was truly remarkable.  He was able to get hidebound faculty members raised in the 30s and 40s to treat kids with enormous respect and to get students who were rightly demanding radical change to see the importance of maintaining the standards that still allowed Central to produce National Merit Scholars, send kids to great schools, and win numerous state championships.  That was a neat trick that someone with less vision and, to use a current term, emotional intelligence, could not have pulled off.”

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“I will never forget him telling teachers who were complaining about students disregarding signs prohibiting walking on what little grass was left in the courtyard that it was the job of a school to raise kids and not grass.” Image/Central Alumni Facebook page

“Bill Burns never took his eye off the ball,” said another, “and that was making sure that students were the focus of Central’s existence and not  mistaking youthful exuberance for bad behavior.  I will never forget him telling teachers who were complaining about students disregarding signs prohibiting walking on what little grass was left in the courtyard that it was the job of a school to raise kids and not grass.”

But Bill Burns was no radical.  Indeed, he was very much the product of a time and place that believed unquestionably in the old-fashioned, time-tested notion that the American public school was indispensable to the sustainability of the democratic society he and his contemporaries fought for in Europe, the Pacific, and Korea. 

In a memorial tribute to their dad, Margo and Steve summed up Mr. Burns’s approach to being a principal with these words: “Throughout his career, (he) remained student-focused. How could he help? How could he encourage? How could he clear obstacles? How could he inspire? He had a clear vision about his role, and that everything needed to be student-focused. He never aspired to become a superintendent because it was a role too removed from the action, as he’d say. His career reached its zenith at Central High School, and he embraced this!”

The city of Manchester saw fit to honor Mr. Burns’s legacy as Central’s principal when the Burns Building was dedicated to stand between the Classical and the Practical Arts Buildings in 2005. Russell Muirhead ‘84, professor of government at Mr. Burns’s alma mater, Dartmouth, offered these word at the dedication ceremony:

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Principal Burns with retired phys ed teacher Don T. Tibbetts. Image/Central Alumni Facebook page

“It is not too grand to say that Mr. Burns valued the human spirit as its promise was made concrete here at Central and even more as it was revealed in each of the students who passed through.  He took pride in the teams, the trophies, the achievements  –  but he also noticed those who were not stars.  He was unflappable, and his good cheer never abandoned him.  He had a quiet but firm commitment to those who did not know many advantages in life, and to the diversity that makes Manchester vital.”

Members of Manchester’s Greek community, who have been served so well by Central and have, in turn, served Central with distinction, mark the deaths of loved ones with this phrase:  “May his memory be eternal.”  For all the good he did in his 26-year career, William A. Burns has guaranteed his place in the memories – and the hearts – of thousands of Manchester citizens, who will fondly and forever remember the best principal they ever had.


 

About this Author

Central High School Hall of Fame Committee

Members of the Central High School Hall of Fame Committee 2022 include Dr. Michael Murphy, Selma Naccach-Hoff, Jane Truncellito Clayton, Andrea Isaac Elliot, Charlene Kurtz, and David Scannell.