MANCHESTER, NH — After serving his country as a naval officer in the Korean War, William Burns settled into civilian life as a professional educator. He first worked in a small school in Vermont which had less than one hundred students. In those days, schools were spread out among small towns all over New England. Gradually, they became unionized — a process which pushed students into bigger schools in centralized locations.
In 1967, when he first came to Manchester Central High School, all the educators and administrators were local people. There was a feeling among the school board that the school had grown a bit stuck in its ways. As a result, an outsider was chosen to bring in a fresh perspective. That outsider was Principal Burns.
As he describes it, a high school principal in those days was the king of his castle. What he said went. Having been raised in a non-technological age, he had non-technological solutions for problems. When students were found smoking excessively in the bathroom, rather than expel them all, Burns instead had them smoke outside — a solution which worked for a while until a law came down banning any smoking at a public school by anyone.
Slideshow: William Burns through the years
In many ways, he was a man ahead of his time. When he started, girls could only play tennis. By the time he was done, they could play every sport they wanted — except fencing. He coached a women’s basketball team for several years. Before Title IX prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender, Burns was already busy removing antiquated systems and ideas which no longer served an ever-changing age.
Teachers and female students, for example, had to wear skirts to school. When it was decided they could wear slacks if they so chose, not a single skirt could be found in the school the following day. Until, that was, Adam Sandler decided to make an unusual choice in pursuit of his freedom to wear what he wanted.
Along with a friend, he came to school one day wearing a mini-skirt. Sandler wanted to be able to wear shorts to school. This, he decided, was the best way to draw attention to his concerns. Inevitably, he was called into the principal’s office. He peeked his head around the corner and said, “Mr. Burns…?”
To which the principal responded, “Yes…? Are you still wearing a mini-skirt?”
“I am, sir.”
“Have you got a pair of pants with you?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“All right, then, go put your pants on and let’s get back to business.”
Burns recalls fondly his time at Central High School, at which he served for 26 years, as the school’s golden age. They were the best years of his life.
He retired in 1993, during a time when computers were starting to come into popular use. In his words, he could have stuck around a while longer if he’d had the energy and the willingness. Already over 60 by that point, he felt he had done enough. He had, after all, been an educator for more than three decades. More than 14,000 students had graduated under him.
Today, he’s concerned that he just can’t keep up with all new electronic devices and systems available. If he had to go back to educating, an unlikely scenario in any case, he admits that he would have to be trained all over again from scratch. He decided not to get into computers in the ’90s because he felt like he wouldn’t get much use out of them. Now, he’s stuck smack-dab in the middle of a digital age.
Both his body and his mind have lasted through the years. He is still as sharp as he ever was. His memory is clear as a bell. His face shines with an interested intelligence he still retains after so much time. Even from just a short conservation with him, one can easily be fooled into thinking he had just retired yesterday, rather than 27 years ago. His hands have a firm grasp. When he stands up to walk, his stride is firm and certain.
If one looks close enough, an insatiable delight for life can still be seen.