Advertisement
  1. News

Surgeon was perennial president of St. Pete High's Class of '44

Dr. Joe Burns, 86, held many leadership roles in St. Petersburg.
Dr. Joe Burns, 86, held many leadership roles in St. Petersburg.
Published Jul. 20, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — The hospitals needed him, a perfectionist who inspired his staffs to snap to attention.

Civic organizations needed him, a fastidious planner, to help organize their oldest traditions such as the Dragon Club's dances and the Suncoasters' Festival of States parade.

And for decades, former classmates at St. Petersburg High School needed Joe Burns for an equally enduring rite: the reunion of its Class of 1944. The group contains a number of well-known local residents who, like Dr. Burns, never really left St. Petersburg. They remember the former "Mr. SPHS" as an academic achiever, a member of the track team and their class president.

Dr. Burns, a prominent surgeon at St. Anthony's and several other hospitals, died July 11 after a heart attack, his family said. He was 86.

"He is recognized in our class as our leader," said Martha Rudy Wallace, a former Pinellas County School Board member. "In our minds and hearts, he is our forever president."

Another classmate, bond market tycoon William Hough, said he felt self-conscious in high school, having skipped a grade.

"(Dr. Burns) was very kind to me. He noticed me and cultivated me," said Hough, one of St. Petersburg's most generous philanthropists. "I was very appreciative of that."

None of the accolades came as a surprise to his family.

"He was very welcoming to everyone," said Cathleen Burns, 54, his daughter. "He had an especially great sense of humor, always a joke on the tip of his tongue."

Dr. Houston Babcock, a retired neurosurgeon, described his longtime friend as a "very dedicated physician and surgeon." Dr. Burns was a fierce defender of the medicine in the United States, which he considered the best in the world.

"He believed in providing medical care to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay," his daughter said. "That was a core tenet."

He assumed several leadership roles over the years, including chief of staff at Edward White Hospital and president of what is now the Florida Society of General Surgeons.

Francis Joseph Burns Jr. was born in 1926 in St. Petersburg. His Irish father, Francis Joseph Burns Sr., was a developer.

Ed Maloof, another Class of 1944 alum whose friendship with Dr. Burns dates to childhood, recalled pulling pranks of a bygone time — like knocking the streetcar cable off its rollers. "He never got in trouble or anything," Maloof added.

Dr. Burns attended Mirror Lake Junior High and played running back on a city-league football team at a site later occupied by a Montgomery Ward store. "We weren't very good," said Class of 1944 alum Bill Davenport, a future lawyer and St. Petersburg City Council member.

Dr. Burns graduated from Emory University and its medical school before serving in the Navy during the Korean War. He met Mary Joye Geary at a New Year's Eve dance at the Vinoy. They married in 1951 and had four children. (A son, 34-year-old Francis Joseph "Joe" Burns III, a popular teacher and lawyer, died in a car crash in 1986.)

"He let his family know each and every day how much he loved them," his daughter said.

At first, the Class of 1944 held reunions every decade or so. For the last 10 or 15 years, they have switched to yearly luncheons. "As we got older our ranks have thinned, so 10 years was too long," said C.O. Ritch, a retired stockbroker who credits Dr. Burns with helping him pass chemistry and physics.

Dr. Burns spearheaded the reunions for many years and attended them all. "I asked him once, 'How long are we going to keep doing these things?' " said Ritch, 86. "He said, 'Until we're not here anymore.' "

Dr. Burns attended the class reunion in April at St. Petersburg Country Club. In a few months, the group will start planning its 70th reunion, albeit without its forever president.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2009 file photo, Frank Knight, 101, of Yarmouth, Maine, stands in front of an elm tree known as "Herbie" in Yarmouth. Knight took care of the tree for about 50 years while working as the Yarmouth tree warden. The tree, estimated to be 217 years old, was cut down Jan. 19, 2010 after suffering numerous bouts of Dutch elm disease. "Herbie" may be gone, but he'll live on in cloned trees that are now being made available to the public. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File) [STEVEN SENNE  |  AP]
    What was once a 213-year-old tree will now be available for purchase — in the form of thousands of cloned versions of the tree once named ‘Herbie.’
  2. Tampa Premium Outlets, 2300 Grand Cypress Drive. The area’s newest outlet is touting the shop tax free weekend and extra savings on top of already reduced prices.
    Deputies are searching for a suspect. There is no public safety threat.
  3. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. SpaceX launched 60 mini satellites Monday, the second batch of an orbiting network meant to provide global internet coverage. (Craig Bailey/Florida Today via AP) [CRAIG BAILEY/FLORIDA TODAY  |  AP]
    No one was aboard for the wild ride in the skies above Cape Canaveral, just two mannequins.
  4. social card for breaking news in crime, for web only
    The driver lost control and crashed into an overpass wall.
  5. social card for breaking news in crime, for web only
    The woman called a second man for help, who shot the man, according to authorities.
  6. The Stewart Detention Center is seen through the front gate, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, in Lumpkin, Ga. The rural town is about 140 miles southwest of Atlanta and next to the Georgia-Alabama state line. The town’s 1,172 residents are outnumbered by the roughly 1,650 male detainees that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said were being held in the detention center in late November. (AP Photo/David Goldman) [DAVID GOLDMAN  |  AP]
    The Associated Press sent journalists throughout the country to immigration court.
  7. Mike Bishop joins Pasco EDC staff. [Pasco EDC]
    News and notes on Pasco businesses
  8. Hernando County community news [Tara McCarty]
    News and notes on Hernando businesses
  9. Ed Turanchik is a lawyer and former Hillsborough County commissioner. [Times (2016)]
    Politico Ed Turanchik is warned for lobbying about the MacDill ferry after his status as a consultant ended.
  10. Jack Pearcy, left, and James Dailey, right, as they appeared when they each entered Florida's prison system in 1987. Both men were convicted of taking part in the murder of 14-year-old Shelly Boggio in Pinellas County. Pearcy got a life sentence. Dailey got the death penalty. Dailey's lawyers have argued that Pearcy is solely responsible for the crime. [Florida Department of Corrections]
    The case of James Dailey, facing a death sentence for the 1985 Pinellas County murder of a 14-year-old girl, is full of contradiction, ambiguity and doubt. Court records tell the terrible story.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement