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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.

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