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Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, March 31, 2000

University of Hawai'i Press
John A. Burns' legacy is commemorated, 25 years
after his death.

Burns mystique
lives after 25 years

By Burl Burlingame


As the man who presided over Hawaii's transformation from a backwater territory to a vital Pacific crossroads and 50th state, John Burns is likely the most important political figure of the latter half of the 20th century here in the islands.

Burns was a curious combination of gaunt, ascetic priest and bare-knuckles backroom brawler, a troubled kid who didn't graduate from high school until his 20s but spent millions on higher education, a firm father figure whose own father deserted the family, a man in the most prominent position in the islands who also shunned the spotlight, a former vice cop who had seen the worst of human behavior and become an ardent champion of civil and social rights, a public figure who despised public speaking, a white man embraced by other races, a card-carrying Hawaii Democrat when Democrats weren't cool, an autocrat who was a friend of labor, a devout Catholic who attended church every day and yet presided over Hawaii's legalization of abortion -- in other words, a conflicted politician and a man of his own times.

Burns passed away on April 5, 1975, 25 years ago, a short time after completing his third term as Hawaii's governor. He was only 66, and never got a chance to retire.

A new book and a television documentary are here to commemorate the event and provide a kind of perspective on the Burns Years.

University of Hawai'i Press
Seldom-seen photographs from John A. Burns'
youth, such as this shot of him as a police sergeant,
are part of a new biography about the former governor.

"Governor John A. Burns -- The Man and His Times," the TV documentary, airs Monday. We've seen a couple of segments in process, and it's appropriately professional and reverential, given that host Emme Tomimbang is Burns' daughter-in-law. Much interesting footage has been unearthed, and the talking heads include top-notch analysts such as Dan Boylan and Tom Coffman, and veterans like Ah Quan McElrath.

There is an annoying technical problem in that the talking heads are outlined by an electronic "matte" that allows them to be inserted into historical footage. The problem is that the interviewees are too animated and don't stay neatly outlined in their windows -- you often see only half a face.

Tech glitch aside, the TV "Burns" promises to be eye-opening and educational for some and a stroll down repressed-memory lane for others.

The book upon which the TV show is based, on the other hand, is an excellent introduction to the subject. A long-delayed pet project of commentator, educator and "content provider" Dan Boylan, the work was pushed to completion by writing partner T. Michael Holmes, a historian at the University of California in San Diego.

Published by the University of Hawaii Press, the book strikes a comfortable balance between reporting, psychological analysis and context assessment in detailing Burns' life. It must not have been easy, given Burns' zeal for privacy and the hurry-up nature of interviews conducted in the last few weeks of the ex-governor's life, as strength ebbed. A first draft was completed in the early '90s and continuously tweaked by Boylan and Holmes until last year.

Curiously, research for the project was underwritten by Kenneth F. Brown, Kejii Kawakami, Matsuo Takabuki, Pundy Yokouchi and Stuart Ho, and the University of Hawaii Press didn't print the work until funding was provided by the Gannett Foundation and the Honolulu Advertiser.

This is interesting, given Burns' close association with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- he worked at the newspaper in the early '30s, was vetted into the Honolulu Police Department by editor Riley Allen and, near the end of his life, allowed Star-Bulletin reporters to visit him in the hospital.

Some of the most interesting passages deal with Burns' early life as an overwhelmed family man. The fall of 1935 was a particularly grim time. Wife Bea, pregnant with their third child, was suddenly paralyzed with polio, and the child was lost. A few weeks later, Burns was involved in a drunken-driving accident, while still on probation as a policeman.

Thanks to the intervention of his mother and other family friends, Burns managed to hold onto his job, and turned his life around. He thereafter believed in the power of second chances. And a good thing too: He lost four of his first six elections.

"John A. Burns" is marred only by a dreadful cover -- it's really a picture of Lyndon Johnson -- and a miserly collection of photographs, poorly chosen, particularly given the rich visual legacy of the "Burns Years" in Hawaii's history.

Book signings

Bullet Featuring: Burns' son and daughter, Judge James Burns and Dr. Sheenagh Burns, and the authors
Bullet Date: April 8
Bullet Sites: Noon, Borders Waikele; 2 p.m. Borders Ward Centre

Burns bios

Bullet In print: "John A. Burns -- The Man and His Times," by Dan Boylan and T. Michael Homes (University of Hawai'i Press), 362 pages; $12.95 in paperback.
Bullet On TV: A documentary by the same name airs at 9 p.m. Monday on KGMB/CBS

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