Borough mourns loss of ‘Mr. Burns’

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Andreas Yilma and Elio Gugliotti, Citizen’s News

Longtime burgess remembered for life of public service

Robert J. Burns Sr., a World War II and Korean War veteran and longtime burgess in Naugatuck, is shown in 2014 waving to the crowd as he rides in the annual Naugatuck Memorial Day. parade. Republican-American archives

NAUGATUCK — From the U.S. Navy to local politics and youth sports, Robert J. Burns’ life epitomized service.

“There’s no doubt that Bob Burns is the quintessential Naugatuckian,” Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess said. “He’s got the best service record of anyone of all time from his military days until his death. He is a great man and he will be missed by the community.”

Burns, a U.S. Navy veteran and longtime burgess, died Oct. 22.

Burns’ service to his country and community started when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 18. He served in World War II and in 1944 was part of the Allied forces that stormed Côte d’Azur in southern France. He reenlisted for active duty during the Korean War and served aboard a minesweeper.

Back home in the borough, Mr. Burns, as he was affectionately known, worked at Uniroyal Chemical for 56 years and raised three sons with his wife, Phyllis, while continuing his service to the community.

Burns started serving on the Welfare Board in the 1950s and was elected to his first term as burgess in the spring of 1972. He served as a burgess continuously until November 2019, when he didn’t run for reelection due to health reasons.

After being elected to his 21st consecutive term in November 2015, Burns told the Republican-American he never gave a second thought to running and wanted to serve as long as he was physically able.

“People said, ‘You can’t run again,’” Burns told the Republican-American at the time. “I said, ‘Oh, yes I can.’ I still have something to give. I like helping people. I like listening to their concerns and trying to make a difference.”

Burns also made his mark for decades as a volunteer youth sports coach, including for the Naugatuck Junior Football League, the Naugatuck YMCA Little Pal Basketball League and Peter J. Foley Little League.

Robert Burns Jr. said serving the country and community meant everything to his father. His father inspired him and his son, Robert J. Burns III, to volunteer as coaches. They coached alongside the elder Burns for years.

“He always taught me to give back and was always an advocate for the elderly, the youth and the needy,” Burns Jr. said. “When he started in politics, he started on the Welfare Board. He was always an advocate for those three groups of people.”

Burns’ political service began well before Prospect Mayor Robert J. Chatfield — the longest chief elected official in the state — was first elected in 1977.

“He was a true servant of Naugatuck,” Chatfield said about Burns.

In December 2019, the borough renamed the Hall of Burgesses in Naugatuck Town Hall the “Robert J. Burns Sr. Hall of Burgesses.”

Robert J. Burns Sr., a longtime burgess in Naugatuck, is shown in December 2019 with his wife, Phyllis Burns, left, and his grandson, Robert J. Burns III, during a ceremony to honor him at the Naugatuck Event Center. –FILE PHOTO

Burgess Robert A. Neth, who is now the longest sitting member on the borough board, described Burns as a father figure, mentor, friend and one of those legends that’s few and far between.

Although he’s a Republican and Burns was a Democrat, Neth said political affiliation didn’t mean anything.

“Bob always tried to steer you in the right direction. He said do whatever is right in your heart in making decisions,” Neth said.

Neth said Burns was an inspiration to him and influenced him to think for himself and be honest.

“Mr. Burns was a legend. He was Mr. Naugatuck. He touched not only the youth but the everyday person that came in contact (with him),” Neth said. “Mr. Burns always had a kind word for everybody. He touched a lot of lives in Naugatuck overall.”

Burns Jr. said honesty was a trademark of his father’s strong character, which he seeks to emulate.

“I’m grateful that I had him as long as I had him. I was fortunate to spend just about every day of his life with him for the last two years,” Burns Jr. said. “It was wonderful. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”