BERLIN - On a recent night when all the stars in the Granite United Way Northern Region's firmament shined brightly, that of Ray Burton shined the brightest, with speakers at the organization's annual meeting enthusiastically sharing stories about the late District 1 Executive Councilor.
Burton died Nov. 12 at home in Bath after a battle with cancer. At the time of his death, Burton was New Hampshire's longest-serving executive councilor. On Thursday, supporters of the Granite United Way Northern Region gathered at the White Mountain Chalet to look back over the past year, to plan for the next year and, most of all, to honor a North Country native son.
Kathy Frenette, director of resource development for GUWNR, said the theme of the annual meeting was "loyalty." Everyone from George Bald, the former commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development, who gave the keynote address, to each award recipient embodied that ideal.
The meeting, Frenette added, was also a celebration of "a man whose love, service, loyalty and advocacy for northern New Hampshire" was "above and beyond a call to duty." Burton, she said, "was many things to many people but most of all he was one of us and the unofficial governor of northern New Hampshire."
State Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton - who served as a Burton intern and who attended the annual meeting with State Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester, who at one time served with Burton on the Executive Council - recalled that only a year ago he and Burton were on a library tour of the North Country, and now, on behalf of Gov. Maggie Hassan, he was eulogizing him.
Burton, Hassan said in a letter read by Woodburn, was "living proof that when we care for each other we get stronger," adding that Burton's "unsurpassed commitment" was the embodiment of the "spirit of the Granite United Way."
Bald, who later in the annual meeting received the GUWNR's "Hero" Award for his "responsiveness to the needs of northern New Hampshire over the years" - the Volunteer Award was presented to Lucien and Muriel Blais; the Give Award was presented to Keith and Tricia Shute; the Greetings Jewelers Caring Award was presented to Donna Cummings; and the Loyalty Award was presented to Bill Woodward - remembered that Burton was a unique public servant.
Whereas the typical Executive Councilor would call him occasionally, if at all, Burton would call "25 times a day," said Bald, adding, with a laugh, that "he used to drive me crazy."
Bald conceded that there were "many times when I was pleased to help him."
Chuck Henderson, who is the special assistant to U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, calculated that Burton "cut close to five miles' worth of ribbon" in his terms as executive councilor, adding that while Burton was certainly a politician, "in his heart, he was a helper" who made himself available to constituents and followed up on their concerns.
Michael Scala, special assistant to U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, read a letter from his boss in which Ayotte touched on a key element of how Burton viewed his job and its responsibilities.
Echoing Henderson, Ayotte said Burton was present for many events in District 1.
"No event was insignificant to Ray," said Ayotte, "If it was important to you it was important to Ray," whom she hailed as the "preeminent proponent of the North Country."
U.S. Rep. Ann Kuster, through Brian Breshnahan, the constituent service representative for her office, said Burton would want everyone to carry on Burton's legacy of helping others.
Joseph Kenney, who won the special election to fill the remainder of Burton's term on the Executive Council, said he was "very mindful" of that legacy.
Mike Cryans, whom Kenney defeated, accepted the GUWNR's Advocate Award for Burton on behalf of his three surviving siblings.
A longtime colleague of Burton on the Grafton County Commission, Cryans said Burton "truly believed that his calling in life was to be there for others," adding that "Ray would have been deeply touched by this advocacy award."