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Hillsborough Aviation Authority Chairman Steve Burton, 52, dies

TAMPA — Steve Burton lived as though the finish line were just around the corner.

He had no choice. In 2009, his older brother and fellow lawyer, Glenn Burton, died of a heart attack at age 51. Yet even as his own heart failed him, Steve Burton could not afford to slow down. The lawyer dedicated himself to his sons, his clients, his community — and Tampa International Airport.

"He was running with half a heart," said his fiancee, Melissa Helms, "and he still accomplished so many things and never complained."

Mr. Burton, who as chairman of the airport's governing board helped chart the course of TIA for years to come, died Sunday at 52. He succumbed to complications from a recent heart transplant.

Mr. Burton was a trial lawyer for Fortune 500 companies, a top Republican fundraiser and a well-connected player in the economic development of his hometown. He challenged the status quo even as he posed for photographs with both Presidents George Bush, 41 and 43.

His real legacy, though, will be as chairman of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which oversees the airport. When he joined the board in 2009, Mr. Burton focused on adding more international flights.

His last acts as chairman will resonate for decades. The master plan he helped shepherd will guide the next 30 years of airport growth. And Mr. Burton led the push for a lucrative new contract for the man expected to execute it — airport CEO Joe Lopano.

"I think we've lost a real visionary and a huge supporter of this airport and this entire region," Lopano said Sunday.

Mr. Burton grew up in Carrollwood. He attended Chamberlain High School, the University of South Florida and then Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.

He spent two decades in commercial and business litigation, rising to managing partner at the law firm of Broad and Cassel. He has advised the U.S. Congress and the Florida Legislature.

He got married and had two sons: Zack, 14, attends Cambridge Christian School; Tyler, 19, goes to Florida State University. After a divorce, Mr. Burton decided he needed to spend more time with his sons. Last year, they went alligator hunting. They caught an 11-footer.

"They went all through the night and were covered in bugs," said Helms, 49. "He was so proud of that day and his boys."

But in the last decade, Mr. Burton's accomplishments were harder to come by. He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. His heart could pump only a fraction of the blood of a healthy heart. An implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, kept shocking his heart back to normal.

"You need to keep in mind that he did all the things he did and he had this incredibly diminished heart function," said Helms. "But he never complained. He never used it as an excuse."

Mr. Burton ran and lived a healthy life. But his condition worsened. A few months ago, he learned he needed a heart transplant. He made it onto the list weeks ago.

He underwent transplant surgery April 13. His new heart worked perfectly — for four hours. Then his condition began to deteriorate. Mr. Burton was never brought out of sedation. He underwent emergency surgery around 2 a.m. Sunday.

His fight ended around 6 a.m.

"A dear friend since I was 17, and he's never changed — a kind, gentle, happy, loving Christian man," said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. "We prayed with him on FaceTime as he was prepped for his transplant. He was a man of highest integrity who lived his faith."

Mr. Burton's public resume was as polished as his private one. He served on the boards of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the USF board of trustees and the board for Stetson University College of Law.

"Steve personifies the fact that you don't have to be elected to office to be a public servant," Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said Sunday.

In 2009, then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Mr. Burton to the aviation authority. Mr. Burton began questioning the practices of CEO Louis Miller and the airport's commitment to attracting more international routes, which have a significant economic impact on the area.

In 2010, after months of heavy scrutiny from the board, Miller resigned after 14 years.

"Steve wasn't one to go with the flow," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who now sits on the aviation board. "Steve pioneered and blazed trails. He was always looking for a better way."

Lopano took over in 2011, and Mr. Burton was elected chairman. The two have been tied together ever since. Lopano was tasked with increasing overseas flights. Routes to Cuba and Switzerland have been added, but TIA still seeks flights to Brazil, Colombia and Germany.

Then came April 4. The aviation board was set to vote on the new $2.5 billion master plan and the CEO's new contract. In addition to Lopano's $315,000 annual salary, the deal would give the CEO an additional $500,000 if he stayed for five full years to oversee the master plan's first phase of airport construction: a new car rental facility and an automated people mover by 2017.

Even from his hospital bed, Mr. Burton stayed focused on TIA. He checked into Tampa General Hospital on April 1. He turned 52 on April 2. Then he participated in the April 4 board meeting by phone.

He voted for the master plan and then, despite the vociferous objections of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, an authority member, Mr. Burton led the board in approving the new contract.

"He had a catheter in his neck, he was 1A on the transplant list," Helms said. "He was so exhausted when the meeting was over. He was determined to finish what he started and do what he thought was right."

Services are pending. Mr. Burton leaves behind his fiancee, father and two sons.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Amy Scherzer contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

Hillsborough Aviation Authority Chairman Steve Burton, 52, dies 04/21/13 [Last modified: Sunday, April 21, 2013 11:43pm]
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