NAUGATUCK — It was the spring of 1973. American troops were pulling out of Vietnam. Reggie Jackson was set to lead the Oakland A’s to a championship season. And Stevie Wonder was pushing for the top spot in the American Top 40.
In Naugatuck, Uniroyal Chemical was the top employer. People would get off the second shift and race to see the Naugatuck High School baseball team, which was still all the rage after rattling off a national record 64 consecutive wins between 1970 and ’72.
On the local election ballot that spring — Naugatuck used to vote in May — was a man who represented the fabric of the community as well as anyone. Robert J. Burns, Sr., served his country in two wars, climbed the ladder to management at the chemical plant and found time to coach thousands of local youth athletes, including some who played on those streak teams.
At age 48, Burns, a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War, said he wanted to get involved in local government because of what he had seen overseas.
“In Italy, I saw families waiting in line with bowls for food rations,” he said. “I wanted to do my part in a small way to make sure that never happened here.”
Fast-forward 42 years to present day Naugatuck. The local baseball team is still good but not dominant. Uniroyal is long gone. And yet Mr. Burns, as he’s known affectionately, is still here.
On Nov. 3, just days after his 90th birthday, the Democratic burgess was elected to his 21st consecutive term. With 2,640 votes, Burns finished fifth out of 12 burgess candidates; nine are elected.
There was never a doubt in the mind of local politicos that he would win. And Burns never gave a second thought to running.
“People said, ‘You can’t run again,” Burns said. “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.”
Over the years, Burns has been the go-to guy for problems in local neighborhoods. A street light needs fixing? Ask Mr. Burns. Need a stop sign? Mr. Burns is on it.
He has also been heavily involved in several contract negotiations, doing his best to find what he believes are fair agreements for employees and taxpayers, alike.
“Mr. Burns is really Mr. Naugatuck,” Deputy Mayor Robert Neth said.
Neth said he realized this in 1997 when he ran his first campaign for burgess. Neth found himself in an unenviable position on the ballot — just beneath Burns.
“I said, ‘I hope people realize I’m not running against Mr. Burns,’” Neth said. “I knew he would get the most votes because people respect him. He’s done so much for this community, it’s incredible.”
Burgess and close friend Patrick Scully said Burns genuinely cares about constituents, particularly children.
Burns is entering his 51st year as a volunteer coach at the Naugatuck YMCA Little Pal Basketball League. And he has coached nearly as many years at Peter J. Foley Little League.
“I think Mr. Burns breathes Naugatuck; he is the face of Naugatuck youth basketball,” said James Goggin, Naugatuck tax collector. “He’s just a great guy.”
Mayor Robert Mezzo said Burns “epitomizes all that is good about the Borough of Naugatuck.”
“He has served his community in so many ways for countless years,” Mezzo said. “It has been an honor serving with him in local government, but even more enjoyable interacting with him and his family in many community activities.”
Burns wants to serve for as long as he is physically able. While Naugatuck is not the thriving factory town he remembers, he still believes in his hometown.
“Naugatuck is a great community, a great place to raise a family,” he said. “But people need to get involved to continue to make it great. You can’t rely on government to do it all.”