Friends, colleagues remember Burns

Joe Burns

How do you quantify a life well lived? Is it how much we do, or how much we accumulate and accomplish? Or is it the lives we touch along the way?

If the life of Joe Burns is any indication, it’s definitely the latter. Burns, who passed away last week at age 79, was much more than a resident of Fairmont. He was a lively member of a living community.

He was an active member of his church; a beloved teacher and coach at Fairmont High School; and a community volunteer of high caliber.

Several of Burns’ longtime friends and colleagues — Arvin Soma, Harlan Gorath and Jim Simser — were able to share some memories of their friend.

“I knew Joe in his classroom and athletics,” said Soma. “But he was a Renaissance man, he was into everything. I think he did all the volunteering so I didn’t have to. He was very easy to work with.

“When I came in, he was a B squad coach and he was easy on kids, yet he had several seasons where he was undefeated. We went down one time and played Estherville and Joe beat them, and that team from Estherville won the state playoffs when they were seniors. He was a winner.

“One of the stories I remember is that he had a kid come in that was kind of scrawny and he wanted to play football. Joe said, ‘I don’t care if you haven’t got hair on your arms, you’re welcome to play.’ That kid was Jerry Rosburg, who had a great career and was a special teams coach for the Baltimore Ravens.

“As far as discipline, Joe was very strict,” Soma continued, “but I don’t think he many problems. He had my respect and everybody else’s.”

Burns was respected in the classroom as well. Gorath shared how Burns made an effort to connect with his students.

“Every challenge was an opportunity for him,” he said. “He was strict, but the kids understood he was fair. Teachers’ kids, principals’ kids, bankers’ kids, kids on welfare or minorities, he worked with them all fairly in his own way, and he was able to reach them.

“Teachers oftentimes have to go through professional development and they get caught up in having to use a certain method. So many times teachers have been so uptight about how they taught, that they don’t teach how their students learn.

“But that’s what Joe did, he got the most out of them without enabling them and taught them to learn from their mistakes. He had humor in the classroom, and he taught his students to laugh with someone rather than at someone. He came into the high school as a natural fit.”

Gorath also touched on Burns’ involvement with the community. Burns was the president of the Early Risers Kiwanis in 1991 as well as lieutenant governor of Kiwanis Division 22 from 1998 to 1999. Burns was a member of the Human Rights Commission, was a hospital and clinic escort, chairman of the Fairmont “Ghost Tours,” involved in Fairmont Mentors, a Venture Travels tour guide, head of The Walking Bus and Safe Routes to School, a county park board member and head of the city bike trails committee for Project 1590.

“The passion that he had for the wellness of this city was legendary,” Gorath said. “It’s not just the trails or the parks, it was doing things with and for kids.”

“He was a people person, there’s no doubt about it,” Simser added. “He cared for people and related to them so well. If asked, he would assume leadership positions.

“In 1999, St. John Vianney started to build and add two new wings to the church,” Simser continued. “Father Joe Fogel was the priest at that time, and he went to Joe and asked if he’d be willing to lead that committee, and he did. So Joe was the head of that and worked closely with the other committees, and that was an almost two-year project. He was also the chairman of the St. John Vianney School Board, his wife Pat taught there for about 30 years, and all of his children went to school there as well.”

Burns was instrumental in helping to develop Fairmont’s trail system. Director of Public Works/City Engineer Troy Nemmers recalls his time working with Burns on the project.

“Joe Burns was a great advocate for the city of Fairmont, specifically for the bike trails,” he said. “I would meet with him quite frequently to discuss his vision for the city’s trail system and he would often request updates to keep me on track. He was very passionate about the trails and, in 2018, several of his friends in cooperation with the City Council and Park Board named the trail from the Aquatic Park south in his honor.”

According to information from his obituary:

Joseph Michael Burns was born on Sept. 19, 1939, in Watertown, Minnesota, the son of Joseph and Edna (McGraw) Burns. Burns graduated from Watertown High School in 1957. He furthered his education at St. John’s University and later graduated from Mankato State University in 1961, with a major in social studies and minors in physical education and math.

On June 24, 1961, Joe was united in marriage to Patricia Remiger at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Sleepy Eye. They shared more than 58 years together. They had four children: Amy, Joe, Dan and Kate.

At Fairmont High School, Burns taught social studies and was part of a successful football coaching staff for more than 25 years. In 1972, he was instrumental in starting the Fairmont wrestling program. After decades of teaching and coaching, he retired in May 1997.

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