A History of the Burns Family
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Bob's Memoir  

Author's Note

When he was in his late 70s Bob Burns was interviewed by our neighbor Julia Fehrenbach, Elizabeth's longtime friend. In response to a half-dozen deceptively simple questions, Bob wrote 17 handwritten pages. Below is a sample of his handwriting, which is why a typed transcript of his responses is included below.



What were the most difficult things you have faced or done in your life. Would you do it differently now? Why or why not? How did this affect your life?

I think there were two difficult experiences: one was the “Great Depression” and the other was my experience in World War II. 

At the time of the Great Depression, my father, who was a middle-class white-collar employee, the assistant treasurer of a large tire company in Akron, Ohio, lost his job when the company was taken over by an even larger company, B.F. Goodrich.

He had worked 19 and a half years and would have been eligible for a pension at 20 years.  However, they did not have “vestment” in those days.  Vestment means that you receive a proportional amount of pension even though you have not worked the full 20 years.  In those days, it was a full 20 years or nothing. He tried very hard to get a job but was unable to do so.

As a consequence, they sold our little house in the city and moved to a “farm” in the country, a place they were in the process of buying as a place to retire. It was a 40-acre farm of varied topography, part woods, part peat bog, part bog lakes, part hills, not at all well suited for farming. My mother, father, elder brother, and I moved there. My sister was in nursing school and my eldest brother was also in college. We tried as many in that depressed period did, to make our living from the “land.”

We bought a cow, two horses for plowing, some chickens, and two pigs. We tilled the land and planted crops: corn for the animals, strawberries, beans, potatoes, peas, tomatoes, muskmelons, each of several acres in extent with the hope of developing a marketable cash crop. In addition was the usual vegetable garden for family use.

This was the result of the first year with respect to the animals.

It developed that the cow could not have a calf, and since that is essential for stimulating milk production, the milk production was quite limited.

Of the two horses, one was a strong young mare, who seemed to thrive on work while the other was an older male horse who main occupation in life until then had been to reluctantly carry children around a riding ring. They were not at all a well-matched team. The male horse seemed quite reluctant to pull a plow. The mare loved to pull a plow. Every time they were hitched to the plow, she would start to pull with great enthusiasm, while he would put his ears back and nip at her as if she was a “company” employee. Despite this handicap, my brother managed to plow all the necessary acres.


The two pigs became pets instead of food for the larder, and were sacrificed in the second year under the stress of human hunger, but with great reluctance.

The chickens did their part.

This was the result of the first year with respect to the crops.

It should be noted that this was a time of severe drought in the Midwest, a part of the “Dust Bowl.” The clouds came to the farm, seemed to magically part over the farm, and then rejoin after they had passed.

The only time we had a good rain was shortly after the potatoes were planted, at which point a cloudburst covered the potatoes so deep that most never came up.

The tomatoes were struck by frost on the 4th of July (a heretofore unheard-of event for July). The tomatoes were saved by carrying water from the well (a hand pump) by sprinkler and to the fields again by hand. Most survived because of the sprinkling.

As soon as the ½ acre of beans came up, woodchucks went up one row and down another eating the beans as the tendrils emerged from the ground. Bloated dead groundhogs were commonplace for several weeks after the slaughter of the bean patch.

One bushel of strawberries was produced in 7/8 acre of strawberries.

2 pecks of peas were produced on a field seeded with certified pea seed at a cost of $25 (an astronomical sum at the time).

The corn crop to feed the animals grew well.

An acre of tomatoes and an acre of muskmelons produced fabulously. I guess because both thrive in hot weather, especially the tomatoes, and the muskmelons had supplemental hand-watering. Unfortunately, as cash crops they were a bust. The price of tomatoes at that time was 35 cents a bushel.  We had a roadside stand which I manned and was able to make an occasional sale. At times we would put out a sign saying “free tomatoes,” but no one picked them up. Few had money to buy gas to travel and traffic was very sparse.

The winters were cold with considerable snow and much of the winter was spent cutting wood with a crosscut and buck saw to fuel the fireplace, wood stove, and cookstove.

Since that year was a disaster with respect to income from cash crops, my parents elected to start a chicken and egg retail store in Akron, which was about 17 miles distant.  My father used to take a pickup truck and go to the Amish farms in southern Ohio to buy chickens (live) and eggs. At the store the chickens were cleaned. There was a phone service in which people could call up for a delivery of chickens and eggs, and my brother and I used to deliver them on Saturday.

Despite our best efforts, we were unable to sustain ourselves even at that primitive level.

When the second year proved more disastrous than the first, it was agreed we should try something else. The decision was made to move to Seattle. Its main appeal may have been that it was as far away as we could get from the present situation and still remain in the continental U.S.

We sold all our possessions, including a ton and a half truckload of family antiques, such as a curly maple bed and rosewood armoire, a walnut spool bed and walnut dropleaf table.  After the sale of all possessions, we had $150 in cash and a 1 and ½ ton truck fixed up like a prairie schooner, with a canvas top, two built-in bunks, and camping equipment.

For me the trip to Seattle was a glorious adventure. It was like a camping vacation. We arrived in Seattle with $15 and a 1 and ½ ton truck, which was sold immediately to amplify our cash assets.

My father almost immediately got a job as a janitor of an apartment for $25 a month and an apartment (minimally furnished) consisting of a living room, small kitchen, a detached bedroom salvaged from an old store room, and a down-the-hall bathroom.  Within a few months, my father secured a new job as the janitor and shortly thereafter the manager-janitor of a nice newer apartment. It was supplied, however, only with a Murphy-in-a-Door bed and no bedroom.  My bedroom was in the Murphy bed of a vacant apartment, which I thought was terrific since I could read at night whenever I wished. During this period of time, my brother worked at a timber surveyor for a logging company in the woods.

Shortly thereafter my father was able to supplement our income by taking an additional job as a janitor in an apartment about a ½ mile away. Although Father was officially the janitor of the second apartment, by mutual agreement with the owners, I was permitted to daily empty the garbage for the individual units and vacuum the halls several times a week. Because of the new arrangement, I no longer stayed in vacant apartments at night, but had my own apartment in the second apartment house.

I did my daily work, ran home for breakfast, walked to school, came home until bedtime, when I walked to the second apartment to sleep.  I was then 15 and a sophomore in high school.

It was during this time that my father and mother were cleaning an apartment for a new incoming tenant.  Father inadvertently stepped in a bucket of cleaning solution he was using to clean the wall and spilled it on the 9 x 12 carpet. Fearful that he had ruined the carpet, he sponged and rubbed it vigorously. When it dried, to his surprise and relief, its only effect was to leave a large, bright, clean spot on the rug. As a consequence of that, my father started “moonlighting” by cleaning rugs and upholstery in other First Hill apartments.  I usually accompanied him. This proved successful enough that my parents decided to go into the rug and furniture cleaning business. They rented a space nearby, built in an apartment, and started on their own. My brother David had returned from the woods and gotten a job as a night janitor in a downtown office building and worked at the cleaning business during the day.

My main work at that time was as a truck driver involved primarily in delivery and pickup of rugs and furniture. During the three years I went to college before World War II, I continued to work in the family business during the summers.

The business continued to expand. We moved into a larger building (again with a built-in apartment). Over time we were able to buy more state-of-the-art equipment and hire several more employees.

It was by the most tenuous of circumstances that Betty and I met a few months prior to my induction into the army. For the ensuing two years I was in the army. I returned from Europe on April 1, 1945 and we were married on April 14, 1945.

When I was discharged in 1946, Betty and I joined the family business.  Betty answered the phone and kept “the books.” I continued on delivery service as well as other work. My elder brother, father, and mother, joined then by my eldest brother and his wife along with a half-dozen employees, constituted the working staff. After my discharge from the army, Betty and I worked there because we thought we were needed for its survival.

By 1949 the business had prospered to the point where we could leave the business and I could go back to school. Incidentally, the business, in spite of or more likely because of our departure, became very successful and now employs 60-80 people.

In retrospect, I have to give great credit to my parents, whose resourcefulness and hard work and general optimism made me feel secure in what now appears to have been a very precarious existence. I am not at all certain that I would have been able to do as well in their position at their age, or in fact, at any age.

The other difficult experience occurred during World War II. I was in my third year at college when I was inducted into the army.  I took my basic training at the infantry center in Fort Benning, Georgia.  I was selected to go to ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program) which means one was permitted to go back to college at the conclusion of basic training. However, during the 8th week of infantry basic, the ASTP was closed to new enrollees. The reason for this was rational, the expectation being that by the time the new enrollees had adequate specialty education, the war would be over. What was needed was soldiers, now!

I was therefore sent to the 87th Division in Fort Jackson, S.C., where I received an additional 8 months of training as a combat medic in Company C, 345th Regiment, 87th Division.

Our Division went to Europe in October 1944, 5 months after Normandy. Originally our Division went to southern France, but in December 1944 was transferred to Patton’s Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge. In our company, the census was a little over 200 at the time we first went into combat. It was a group with a varied demographic background. Many, like myself, were former college students, many were from the New York slums, many were rural Southerners.

Of that group of 200, at the end of 2 months only 35 of the original remained. Some were sick, many were dead, many were wounded, many were prisoners-of-war. I was one of the fortunate 35. General Patton, head of the Third Army, to which our Division was attached, issued a general order that all soldiers overseas for six months with two Battle Decorations were eligible for a 45-day furlough. I had been awarded a Silver Star and a Bronze Star, and was therefore eligible. I arrived back in the U.S. on April 1, 1945. Betty and I were married on April 14, 1945. The progress of the war was such that I was able to remain in the U.S. as a Lab Technician until my discharge.

I don’t think I could have modified my war experience. Betty and I have discussed many times whether we could have modified our business experience.  I felt that I was needed for my family’s survival. In retrospect, they would probably have done as well without our help and we could have been free several years sooner to pursue our own interests. I think the early days of the Depression impressed on me the need for family cohesion and cooperation for family survival to the exclusion of what was best for my own chosen family.

The war gave me a strong sense of the stupidity and irrationality of war as a solution to any problem. There is a concept of “just” and “unjust” wars. But even just wars don’t solve fundamental problems; they merely postpone events until the problem has again risen to the level of crisis. In fact, the term “just war” seems like an oxymoron.

For 7-8 years I used to periodically have nightmares from January through February, especially if there was snow on the ground. The “good healer,” time, has lessened the intensity of feeling, and I seldom recall those events. I do, however, still have an inordinate reflex response to loud noises.

In reviewing this question I am impressed by the role chance plays in one’s life. Except for a highly improbable chance meeting, Betty and I never would have met, and therefore never married. True, there would have been other spouses, other children, and other grandchildren. But not this spouse, not these children, not these grandchildren.

As has often been said, an infantry solder is only a fugitive from the law of averages. If one is in combat long enough and does his job, the chance of his being unscathed is marginal.

And then there is the serendipitous start of a business by the inadvertent step of a foot into a bucket of cleaning water.

Author's Note

Bob was particular poorly suited to the military, and very well suited to pediatrics, his chosen profession, as indicated by his scores on two tests given to him in his third year of medical school.

On the Edwards Personal Preference Scale, his high scores were on autonomy, affiliation, and nurturance, with the nurturance score above the 99th percentile - literally off the chart. His low scores were on dominance, aggression, and exhibitionism.

On the Strong Vocational Interest Inventory, he was indentified as being most suited for a career in psychology, architecture, physics, and medicine.

What were some of the most enjoyable times of your life? Why were they so memorable?

Without question, the most enjoyable and most memorable times were our family vacations (Betty, our two daughters, and I). They usually consisted of camping and backpacking excursions that varied from weekends to a month and a half.  I think that they were memorable because it was a shared experience without the outside distraction of civilization’s trappings.  It gave me a sense of family cohesion and a general warm fuzzy feeling.

Other enjoyable times relate to recreational activities: fly fishing, sailing.

Since retirement, the most enjoyable experiences include helping my son-in-law remodel our house, having lots of time for reading and studying, going on trips to Canada, Mexico, the British Isles, and extensively in the U.S. with Betty, and watching my grandchildren grow up.

As a generalization, I enjoy solving programs that require relatively little social interaction.  Even the simplest problems, building a bookcase, installing a light switch, plumbing a sink, are fun for me.  Over the years (and I say this not with false humility), I have come to realize that I am so anti-charismatic and non-persuasive that I’m not only not a positive force but perhaps a negative one for my own ideas.  As a consequence, any situation involving social interactions is difficult for me.  I therefore tend to be somewhat reclusive except for my own family.  I am, however, trying to work on it.


What have been the best ways you have learned to cope with everyday stress, or worse yet, the loss of a friend or loved one?

I am quite dysfunctional in coping with stress, and I don’t think I have really good coping mechanisms. My main mechanism is denial and repression, or avoidance of feeling.

At times, I tend not to confront people who should be confronted and therefore present a false demeanor. I am not talking here about a confrontation of ideas, which I do frequently, often with passion, but rather confronting people whose conduct and behavior I perceive to be bad.

The consequence of repression of feeling is like that of a boiler building up pressure and then suddenly exploding because of a malfunctioning safety valve.

Fortunately, with advancing age, this is an infrequent occurrence, but in the past on several occasions I have felt long-term remorse which might never have occurred had I been more forthright.

Trying to see the humor in absurdities, physical activities, withdrawal, reading, working with math problems, talking with Betty, and sharing my feelings in my own inadequate way are some of my coping mechanisms.

What are the most important things you have learned in your life? What advice would you give children to help them out?

(Not necessarily in order of importance or all-inclusive.)

  1. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  2. It is better to have a few good friends than many superficial ones.
  3. Look for self-validation in principles and values, not in material acquisitions.
  4. Try as best one can to follow the “golden rule,” which though varied in expression is the fundamental principle of all moral teaching of major religions. Be not overly impressed by the trappings of religions but rather by the underlying ethical content.
  5. Develop an historical perspective about human society.
  6. Be ever aware of the importance of social justice.
  7. Accept responsibility for your conduct and behavior.
  8. Try to develop coping mechanisms that work for you.
  9. Learn to express your feelings.
  10. Develop a sense of humor to help cope with life’s frustrations, inequities, and society’s oftimes stupid and irrational absurdities.
  11. Try to have as positive an outlook as your life condition permits, both for your own sake as well as those around you.
  12. Avoid behaviors that are detrimental to physical or psychological health.
  13. Develop simple routines of daily living. By doing so, you will free your mind from having to dwell on petty things.
  14. Don’t be afraid to try new activities, new experiences.
  15. Try to develop varied interests: academics, sports, music, dancing, art, community activities, the natural world, photography, crafts, to name a few. In so doing, you may develop interests that will be lifelong, or even better, interests that may determine your lifetime work. Nothing is more rewarding that the coincidence of your greatest interest and your lifetime occupation. Therefore, when you are young, sample widely, so you may better know your options.
  16. In sports, remember that team sports, especially for the young, are both fun and healthy.  However, also develop interests in sports that require just yourself or one other person, since these are activities you can participate in for a lifetime.
  17. Learn to listen actively to what others are saying, not just the words, but the meaning of what they are trying to communicate.


Has there ever been a time that you or a friend has been discriminated against?  Please explain the situation, how you felt, and what happened because of it.

Since I am a WASP, more accurately a WASA (i.e., an agnostic, not a Protestant), I have never felt discriminated against, except for the usual childhood experiences that arise from differences in economic station. However, among those of different color, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual gender or orientation, I have known a number of people who either were or perceived themselves to be discriminated against.

The most notable of these were friends [Gordon Hirabyashi and his wife) that Betty and I met in the early ‘50s, who had the following experience:

The husband was an American-born Japanese, the wife a Caucasian whose background included a long family tradition of Quakerism.  During World War II, the husband’s family (mother, father, a younger sister, and two younger brothers) were relocated and interned in a Midwest camp.  He, although promised “special treatment” if he “went along,” did not acquiesce and was imprisoned. When he was released after the war was over, he met and married his wide and himself became a Quaker.

Shortly thereafter he was drafted but refused on the grounds of conscientious objection.  At the height of the controversy over incarceration, his wife delivered twins. As one might imagine, as all these facts came to light, there was a resulting media circus.  Given the spirit of the times (the late ‘40s), one might also predict the community response. A rebellious Nisei, converted Quaker, imprisoned again, this time because of conscientious objection, whose wife has now delivered twins, the product of a miscegenated marriage.  All these factors managed to push numerous hot buttons. 

They had kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, government letters, letters from many ordinary citizens, a few of which were supportive, but most of which were cruel, hateful, and vindictive. The oddest thing to me was that although Betty and I were not only angry but incensed at such injustice, they seemed to have a calm, philosophical understanding of the realities of social injustice.

The story had an upbeat ending.  When we met them, he was getting his Ph.D in sociology.  When he graduated, he became a professor at American University in Beirut, Lebanon, and later at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, from which he recently retired.

In addition he became a plaintiff in a landmark case against the U.S. government in which the following argument was used: The defendants at the Nuremberg trials were not allowed to be found innocent in their treatment of Jews on the basis that they were only following orders.  The prosecution position which held sway was that they should not have followed orders but followed the dictates of their conscience. This he contrasted to himself, who did follow his conscience but who was still found culpable.  Apparently the Supreme Court was sufficiently impressed by the inconsistency that he won his case and obtained a full presidential pardon.

Interestingly, his two brothers, who were too young to be involved in the war, subsequently received Ph.D.’s, one in anthropology, and one in philosophy. Both married Caucasian women, one of whom also has a Ph.D. in anthropology. One daughter became a nurse, and I don’t know what subsequently happened to her.

Strong family! Strong people!

Probably one of those few instances where refusal to compromise principle has a happy outcome.