Keith Burns, lion-hearted (1927-2007)

Les AuCoin

Another great Oregon liberal has left us, joining such giants as Ted Hallock and Sid Lezak. Keith Burns was an unapologetic, quintessential Portland liberal, whose heart for people was as big as Oregon's vast high desert, although his base was in the Willamette Falley.

I met Keith when he was appointed to the Oregon House in the middle of the 1971 session in my freshman year. His desk was immediately in front of mine and he jumped into the work with the joy of a big kid in a candy shop. He always had a twinkle in his eye--what it mischief, possibility, optimism, all three and more?--that drew people to him.

As I write these words of remembrance, I realize many (most?) readers have no idea whom I'm describing.

As I grow older, having seen so much political greatness in my life, I'm saddened that time erodes public memory of men and women who contributed brilliantly to the commonweal of Oregon and the nation while whole new generations make the mistake of assuming, subliminally at least, that our causes, our work, our defeats and victories are the center of political history. Just the other day, when I wrote in Blue Oregon about Tom Eagleton's last words, I realized that many students I used to teach at Southern Oregon University would have only the dimmest memory of the man, if they remembered him at all.

Shortly after former US Senator Gaylord Nelson died, I mentioned him to an activist who is in the think of modern Oregon politics. He blinked incomprehensively. "The father of Earth Day," I said, although Earth Day was the least of Nelson's enormous contributions to the environment. "Oh," the young man replied. He knew all about Earth Day of course but, like the wind that erodes the mightiest mountains, the passage of time diminished the memory of the man who wrote a four-page letter to JFK in the spring of 1963--yes, 1963!--outlining how the president could use the environment as the centerpiece of his reelection race.

The last highly visible public job Keith Burns held was chief of staff to Governor Bob Straub from 1975 through 1976. But his passion for justice, civil liberties, economic opportunity, racial healing, and urban livibility continued in private life until he was unable to carry the liberal banner another step forward. Do yourself a favor and check out his obituary in Friday's Oregonian here.

It all seemed to go so fast. Despite his many contributions, I must borrow a phrase and say, "Keith, we hardly knew ye."

  • Chuck L. Manson (unverified)

    I am glad Keith Burns was instrumental in abolishing the death penalty in Oregon and I am equally glad that the Wapato Jail in Multnomah county remains CLOSED! We need more human rights activists not JAILS. Thank you Keith Burns!

  • Jefferson Smith (unverified)

    It would be good to have more running history of public interest contributors. PolitiCorps includes some of that in the trainings, but it would be good to do more to make heroes of the people who spend meaningful portions of their lives championing the general good.

    And thanks Les, for this.

  • (Show?)

    Yes, agreed. Les, I'd love it if you took on the challenge of providing historical perspective around here. Too often, we forget what's come before - and fail to understand how it informs what comes next.

  • (Show?)

    Jefferson & Kari,

    Thanks. I'll try to do that when I can.


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