Farewells to Burns with honor, affection

City's first black mayor paid his dues at all levels

January 17, 2003|By Eric Siegel and Doug Donovan | Eric Siegel and Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

History might remember Clarence H. Du Burns simply as Baltimore's first African-American mayor, but friends and colleagues also eulogized him yesterday as a man whose rise from the impoverished east side gave him an instinctive rapport with all people and made him a source of inspiration and wisdom.

"He was as comfortable in Hampden or Cherry Hill as in the boardrooms or the mayor's office in City Hall," Edward Snowden, a retired Bethlehem Steel employee and longtime friend, told several hundred mourners at a funeral Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen for Burns, who died Sunday at 84.

"Du's life serves as an example of what we can achieve despite humble beginnings."

The son of a maid and a laborer, Burns never attended college and spent two decades as a high school locker room attendant. He served 15 years as an East Baltimore City Council member and council president before ascending to the mayor's office in 1987 when William Donald Schaefer became governor.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in Friday's editions of The Sun erroneously identified Nathaniel T. Oaks as a former state delegate. Oaks is currently serving in the state House of Delegates.
The Sun regrets the error.

He served 11 months as mayor, creating low-income housing and the city's first program to help the homeless, leaving office after his defeat in the 1987 Democratic primary by a Rhodes scholar and then-state's attorney, Kurt L. Schmoke.

Speaking to a shoulder-to shoulder crowd of top former and current Baltimore politicians, city officials and high-ranking Catholic church dignitaries, the Rev. Edward M. Miller said in his homily that Burns "embodied what was good about politics, what was good about life, what was good about Baltimore."

Miller, who is pastor of St. Bernardine's Church and administered Burns' last rites, said that despite his lack of formal education Burns was a "mathematician who knew 10 was the magic number, 10 and you win," a reference to the number of votes needed to get a bill through the council.

The trajectory of Burns' life should serve as a lesson to youths today who think jobs flipping hamburgers are not good enough for them, Miller said. "Our youth need to know, if you have nothing, nothing is below you," he said.

As for Burns' nickname - a variation on the verb do that he got working the wards of East Baltimore as a young man - Miller said, "He got it the old-fashioned way - he earned it."

"I got $5 that says even God calls him Du," Miller added.

Schaefer, who delivered an ebullient introduction at Wednesday's inauguration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., was far more subdued yesterday, calling Burns an "outstanding, wonderful friend."

"Du didn't have a great education," Schaefer said. "You know where he got his degree - walking the streets, shaking hands, walking up the alleys."

"He was a teacher to me," the state comptroller added.

Mayor Martin O'Malley noted that he never served in government with Burns but said he got a dose of the former mayor's street-wise sensibilities early in his administration.

O'Malley was riding a snowplow during a large winter storm when he hit upon the idea to plow the narrow East Baltimore street where Burns lived.

When the plow reached the end of the block, O'Malley knocked triumphantly at Burns' door to tell his predecessor what he had done.

Burns, dressed in slippers and a robe, poked his head out of his house and surveyed the piles of snow created by the plow.

"He said, `Boy, you better get out of here before the neighbors figure out who blocked them in,'" O'Malley recalled to laughter. "He was a wise man."

In addition to O'Malley and Schaefer, yesterday's funeral Mass was attended by former Mayors Schmoke and Thomas J. D'Alesandro III.

Other notables in attendance included Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, Maryland Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and U.S. Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Elijah E. Cummings.

Cardinal William H. Keeler was the celebrant of the Mass, which was also attended by Archbishop William D. Borders and Bishops W. Francis Malooly and Gordon Bennett.

After the Mass, Keeler called Burns an "extraordinary person."

"What I see is a tribute to his ability to see God's great gifts in many individuals and to challenge those individuals to put God's gifts to work," he said of the large turnout for the funeral.

Steele said he did not know Burns, but he called the former mayor a "trailblazer" who made possible Steele's own historic ascendancy in state politics.

"This was an opportunity to pay respects to the first African-American mayor of the city as the first African-American lieutenant governor of the state," Steele said.

Burns' casket was carried from the cathedral to a waiting hearse as former and current City Council members lined up in respectful attention. Among the pallbearers were former state Sen. Nathan C. Irby Jr., state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden and City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, East Baltimore politicians to whom Burns was a mentor.

"He got me my first job at the Department of Sanitation at Sisson and 28th Street," said Young. "Du Burns was the father of all of us in East Baltimore."

"He was my rock," added McFadden.

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