Memorial service for Councilor Ray Burton set for Dec. 14 at Plymouth State University
District 1 Executive Councilor Ray Burton at Presby's Annual Sugar Party in Bethlehem earlier this year. (Sara Young-Knox/Union Leader)
Burton, 74, died just more than two weeks after announcing that his fight for his life would prevent him from running for a 19th term on the Executive Council and 10 days after he made his final public appearance at a ceremony and reception in his honor in the heart of his beloved council District 1, which he represented for 34 of the past 36 years.
He first disclosed his cancer in an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader last February. He died just before 2 a.m. on Tuesday at his home surrounded by friends, according to his spokesman and friend, B.J. Perry.
Perry said services for Burton's family will be private and that a public memorial services is also planned, with details to be released in the next several days.
Gov. Maggie Hassan, ordering flags statewide lowered to half-staff, said, "For nearly 40 years, Ray Burton stood up and fought for the people and communities of the North Country with a passion that can never be matched. We have lost one of the most dedicated, caring and unwavering public servants that the State of New Hampshire has ever known."
Burton, a Republican, was elected to the Executive Council in 1976, but lost in a GOP primary two years later. In 1980, however, voters returned Burton to the council, and he won reelection every two years through 2012. He also served for many years as a Grafton County Commissioner.
Burton's council victories were almost always landslides, sometimes with only token opposition. Yet, Burton always seemed to be on a never-ending campaign tour, appearing at even the smallest events in his district, always running, he often said, as though "I'm one vote behind."
His slogan, "Burton for Certain," appeared on all types of items he would hand out at events, from combs to baseball caps, and even on pot holders declaring, "No problem too hot to handle."
He was known in his council district, which stretches from the Canadian border to the Upper Valley and to areas just 20 miles north of Concord, for his relentless commitment to constituent service and his personal relationships with not only elected officials and prominent residents, but also with average Granite Staters.
"For the people Ray represented," Hassan said, "he was more than an executive councilor or county commissioner. He was a member of the family. If a challenge or problem ever arose, you could call Ray Burton and he would do everything in his power to help.
"If a business, a student, a community leader was being honored, Ray Burton would be the first to applaud. If there was a parade, a pot luck dinner, a public meeting, you knew that Ray Burton would be there," the governor recalled.
Just 10 days ago, Burton he made his final public appearance at a ceremony for new scenic overlook in his name on Route 302 in Bretton Woods, followed by a reception at the Mount Washington Resort.
Burton, clearly pleased by the large turnout and flood of warm wishes, arrived in his "parade car," a yellow 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88.
The most controversial period of Burton's long career came in the fall of 2005. Then-Gov. John Lynch and the state's congressional delegation joined in calling for Burton to resign after the Union Leader reported that he knowingly employed a convicted child sex offender on several of his campaigns.
Burton apologized, said he personally exercised "strict supervision" over the aide during campaign events where children were present and said he would not hire him again. It was then reported that the aide, despite his record, had landed jobs in state government as a toll attendant and liquor store clerk.
Burton refused to comment on those jobs. He flatly refused mounting calls to resign, saying instead he would leave the decision on his political future up to the voters.
By the next election, in the fall of 2006, the controversy had died down and he was reelected in a landslide.
Hassan noted that in the final months of his life, "Even as his health prevented him from attending in person, Ray refused to miss Executive Council meetings, participating by phone without missing a beat or a vote."
"As much as any other person that I have ever known, Ray Burton understood the deep history and recognized the promising future of the Granite State," Hassan said. "With his passing, a hole has been left in the hearts and souls of all Granite Staters."
Burton served with nine governors, including current Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who called him "a great friend" and "incredible advocate for the people of northern New Hampshire."
Former Gov. John H. Sununu said Burton's service "stands as the model of what makes our state great. Ray was always there to serve his constituents and he never let them down. He will never be replaced."
Burton served with a long list of fellow councilors over the years. One of his newest colleagues, Colin Van Ostern of Concord, who is 40 years Burton's junior, cited his "extraordinary and humbling legacy," saying he "left a model of service that will live on."
State Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, called Burton "a tireless and effective fighter for the people, places, and way of life that defined his beloved North Country," while Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said Burton "never allowed policy makers to lose sight of the great people and unique places that make up the state's North Country."
House Speaker Terie Norelli, D-Portsmouth, said, "His legacy lives on in the actions of current and future public servants that he inspired, empowered and educated." House Republican Leader Gene Chandler of Bartlett, a Burton constituent, said Burton "is simply irreplaceable, and he will be profoundly missed by all."
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a former state Attorney General, said Burton "saw public service as a calling and a true joy," and was "an extraordinarily respected voice" at the State House, while U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster called him one of the state's "finest public servants, kindest souls and most steadfast leaders."
Chief Justice Linda Stewart Dalianis, speaking on behalf of the Supreme Court, said that state lost one of its "most enduring public servants" and cited his "unparalleled" dedication to his constituents and "remarkable legacy."
State Republican Party Chair Jennifer Horn said Burton "set the gold standard for public service in our state," while Democratic Chair Raymond Buckley called him "a legend who can never be replaced. Our state is a better place as a result of Ray's service and accomplishments, and his memory will live on for years to come."
(Union Leader staff reporter Pat Grossmith contributed to this report.)
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