The man who chose to 'do'

CATCHING UP WITH ... CLARENCE "DU" BURNS

At 80, Baltimore's first black mayor, Clarence 'Du' Burns, is out of politics but still enjoys the role of exemplary elder statesman.

February 07, 1999|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff

It's kind of hard to believe him at first when he says he has nothing to complain about beyond the pain and frailty of old age, or his diabetes. That perpetual look of anxious solicitude on his face, those eyes liquid with sad concern, all suggest otherwise. But Clarence "Du" Burns, Baltimore's first black mayor, makes you accept that he holds no grudges and lives without any bitter might-have-beens. So he never did get to play his saxophone with Duke Ellington's band. He never really expected to.

So he never did become Baltimore's first elected black mayor. That was a dream probably never seriously dreamt, but for a few months in 1987. That was the year Kurt L. Schmoke defeated Burns in the Democratic primary and basically ended the older man's long political career. It wasn't exactly like knocking out Joe Louis, though it might have seemed that way to Schmoke, especially after Burns' sad comeback attempt in 1991.

In January 1987, City Council President Burns ascended to the mayor's office after William Donald Schaefer ascended to the governor's. Burns ran the city for nearly a year.

"People seemed to like what I did when I was mayor," Burns says, adding with a soft, deprecating touch, "Just wasn't enough of them." He is not less boastful than most politicians; he just does it subtly enough that you don't notice.

What Burns achieved can't be taken from him, and he revels in that knowledge. And if you are one of those who measure success more by how far a person travels than by where he or she eventually winds up, you'll have to agree that Burns traveled a lot further than his successor.

Schmoke, the handsome, clean-cut, earnest, high-school football hero, Ivy Leaguer, Rhodes scholar, etc., was trained from a young age to make good: Success was only a few steps away -- inevitable, in some people's minds.

For Burns, who famously worked as a locker-room attendant, success of the magnitude of which we are speaking was an incomprehensible distance. He never went to college; he went to the Army (where he learned to play the sax). He was groomed to be a ward heeler, not the city's executive. But because congeniality comes naturally to him, he wound up knowing just about everybody in East Baltimore, got himself elected to the City Council and, owing to his valuable political service to Schaefer, reached what was to him a dizzying height.

And but for a few more than 5,000 votes, he would have been propelled higher still, for in the primary election of 1987 he very nearly snatched Kurt Schmoke's future right out from under his nose.

Baltimore probably never had two mayors follow one another with more distinctly different approaches to their business than Burns and Schmoke. Schmoke is full of theory and broad knowledge of governance. He is thoroughly educated and doesn't try to conceal it. He may be less hypocritical than most politicians. He is a policy man trying to find the way to make things better generally.

Burns' approach during his brief tenure at the top was to implement his traditional way of doing things citywide. He did things for people. When he was a ward leader, as his father was before him, he did the things his father did: He helped people personally, individually. Burns scouted out small jobs for people who needed them; he arranged loans to avoid eviction for those he considered deserving; he'd see that bail was posted for the errant son of a constituent.

That was how he operated, and it won him a lot of friends. It's also how he got that peculiar nickname which sounds vaguely French, but is actually a Burnsian modification of the verb "do," which he didn't think would look as classy in print as "Du."

At age 80, Clarence "Du" Burns lives a slow, relaxed life. He gets up around 9 a.m., and takes maybe a little longer than he used to getting out of his pajamas. He sits around his cozy house, all filled with the resonant detritus of nearly six decades of marriage to the formidable Edith, just three years younger than himself.

They do a little bickering, Du and Edith, but who wouldn't after all that time?

"She wants to move out of here," he says, referring to their tight rowhouse in the 2600 block of Mura Street. "This has been my house for 43 years."

He sits on the couch, placid, like an old lion, one who never bit anybody. In his den, this house, he is surrounded by familiar bric-a-brac. The couch is graced by a knitted throw of many colors. Above, on the ersatz brick "family wall," are the images of that family: his wife, daughter, granddaughter, relatives further removed.

The furniture is built for comfort, the couch he sits upon, the two chairs that face it across a cluttered coffee table. On every side are references to his Catholic faith: a statue of the Virgin Mary on a table, other representations of her on the wall, two small holy- water fonts near the door. An immense ceramic flower vase sits on the floor.

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