Former New Hampshire Speaker of the House Harold Burns of Whitefield died early Sunday following a battle with cancer. He was 86.
Speaker Burns, a Republican, served 14 two-year terms in the state's 400-member House of Representatives, and held the speaker's position from 1991-1996, after two terms as deputy speaker. After stepping down from the House, Burns was elected to a single term as District I state Senator in 2000. He then took on the job of Whitefield town moderator.
Upon learning of Burns' passing, House Republican Leader Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett) issued a statement saying, "The passing of Harold Burns is a tremendous loss for the Granite State. As someone who served with Speaker Burns I know firsthand his passion, leadership and dedication to public service for the people of New Hampshire. On behalf of the Republican caucus of the New Hampshire House we extend our deepest sympathies to the Burns family. In his honor, we will continue to serve the way Harold Burns did, with true Yankee values and Granite State ideals."
Earlier this month Whitefield officials and state legislators gathered at the State House as Gov. Maggie Hassan signed Senate Bill 115 into law, naming the bridge over the Johns River on Route 3 and Route 116 in Whitefield as the Burns Bridge. The honor recognizes the civic and military contributions made by several generations of the Burns family.
Gov. Hassan released a statement Sunday evening regarding Burns' death, saying, "Tom and I join the people of New Hampshire in mourning the loss of Speaker Harold Burns. Speaker Burns ably carried on the Burns family legacy of dedicated service to the people of Whitefield, and his steady leadership and willingness to hear all points of view in Concord helped strengthen our entire state. We are deeply saddened by his loss, and our thoughts and prayers are with Speaker Burns' family and loved ones."
The prime sponsor of S.B. 115 was District I Sen. Jeff Woodburn, of Dalton, a Democrat, who called Burns a "personal mentor."
"I was sorry to hear he had passed," said Woodburn Sunday night. "His son Scott called to tell me. I ran against him once, and then we became good friends. As a local writer, I would always approach him as a source of local history and knowledge. The day before I was sworn into the Senate in December, I went to visit with him. He provided me with wisdom whenever needed and I enjoyed our talks and times together."
Woodburn said the idea to name the bridge was not spawned by his poor health.
"It actually came from a conversation I had with him about his family history," said Woodburn. "The process started to honor generations of his family. When I heard that his cancer had returned recently, it took on added importance, and I'm glad he was able to see it happen."
Because of ill health, Burns was not able to attend the bill signing ceremony, or Whitefield's town meeting on March 12. He stepped down as town moderator after the 2012 town meeting, a position he had held since being appointed in Dec. 2005.
An official bridge-naming ceremony may be held in April.
"He was someone who never sought a leadership role, but assumed those duties when given the chance," said Woodburn. "He was a true servant of the people."
"It was remarkable, how he rose to the level of speaker coming from such a small town," said Rep. Marcia Hammon, D-Whitefield. "He wasn't interested in the personal power, he represented the people, and had a gift for getting people involved in government. It's a talent we seem to be lacking in many leaders today."
Burns ran the Burns Insurance Agency along with his son, Scott, a seventh-generation Burns living in Whitefield, and his wife Catherine "Katie" Burns.
Speaker Burns is survived by three married adult children — two sons and a daughter: John of Whitefield and New York City, and his wife Carol; Sandra of Hydesville, Calif., and her husband Peter McKay; and Scott of Whitefield, and his wife Catherine. He has four grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
He was predeceased by his wife, Eleanor Ann Burns, who died June 25, 1997, at the age of 69.
Funeral service details are pending.