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A retired psychiatric social worker became a prison volunteer and interfaith advocate.
Published Jul. 2, 2010

The mural outside the racquetball court, a cooling vision of whales, dolphins and turtles in the sea, projects a different image from the double razor-wire fences surrounding Hillsborough Correctional Institution.

That is as Hugh Burns intended. A retired psychiatric social worker and prison volunteer, he was fascinated by fences and doors and often photographed them. Inmates at the women's prison, located in Balm, painted the wall and planted the flowers in an adjacent rose garden he also envisioned, complete with a walk-through trellis and benches for meditation.

Mr. Burns raised the money for both projects.

"When he first suggested it, we thought he was crazy," said Rex Henry, the prison chaplain. "Now it's the centerpiece of the place."

A retiree at 59 who suffered respiratory ailments, Mr. Burns pushed himself to stay active through lawn bowling, canoeing and jewelry making. He and his wife, Betty, also brought communion to their Sun City Center neighbors.

A dedicated Catholic, he founded a group for practitioners of Christianity, Judaism and Islam to find common ground after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"With all his physical restrictions, he just worked like a fire engine," said Suzanne Lynch, a past president of a local chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization of Catholics created in response to sexual abuse by priests. Mr. Burns started the local chapter several years ago, saying the church's leadership should be more transparent.

"He was an activist, not a rabble rouser," said the Rev. Hugh Burns Jr., a Dominican priest and Mr. Burns' son. "He was very measured, very pointed, but also uncompromising on principle."

Born in Ansonia, Conn., he moved to Needham, Mass. He enlisted in the Navy in 1945 and married Betty in 1949. He worked as a technician but stayed in school, becoming a psychiatric social worker with a master's degree from Boston College. He worked at a Boston-area VA, taking his children into town to see museums, ballet and the symphony. He retired in 1987.

"He was always looking ahead, not back so much, but to make things better," said Betty Burns, his wife.

He focused his efforts on the Hillsborough Correctional Institute for 20 years, often volunteering alone when it housed teenage males. He counseled inmates and taught classes.

In 2004, it became a women's "faith- and character-based" prison, and Mr. Burns managed to raise money and recruit other volunteers for his beautification projects.

In November, officials and inmates christened the Hugh Burns Meditation Garden, where roses bloom on prison soil. Mr. Burns died June 23 of pneumonia. He was 82.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or

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Hugh Lawrence Burns

Born: Nov. 7, 1927.

Died: June 23, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Betty, son the Rev. Hugh Burns, daughters Betsy Burns and Ellen Avola and her husband Christopher.