by Henry Lane Hull
The year 2000 was a significant milestone in the modern history of the Northern Neck. In that year John Burton retired after nearly three decades as the county administrator of Northumberland County. John’s impact on the county’s development was monumental. He directed the adoption of numerous initiatives in all avenues of policy and its application. When he retired, he was the senior county administrator in the Commonwealth, having served the longest tenure.
John had a deep understanding of how government operates. He was an economics major at the University of Virginia, and after graduation and service in the U.S. Army, he returned to Northumberland where he taught at the high school level and served as a deputy sheriff during the administration of Sheriff Wellington Shirley. In addition, he enjoyed farming his family lands and he retained an affinity for land issues all his life.
In 1974, after the General Assembly had enacted major changes to the manner in which county governments were to operate, John was the logical, indeed the ideal, choice to become the new county administrator. Previously, the Clerk of the Circuit Court handled county administrative matters, but the new law separated the two positions into judicial and operational functions.
As administrator, John brought his multifaceted background to the position. He knew every road, every property and nearly everyone in the county. He worked with successive members of the board of supervisors, providing them the wealth of his vast experience and know-how. He oversaw the workings of the many county agencies, boards and committees, making certain that every matter was handled correctly and justly. He was one of the most respected members of the Virginia Association of Counties (VACO) and regularly attended all VACO meetings.
For John, truly nothing was too much trouble in serving the citizens of the county. If any civic organization needed assistance, he was there. I recall one occasion when he spent his Saturday with others from the Northumberland County Historical Society picking up a piece of furniture that a family was donating to the society. He and his wife, Brenda, attended countless fire department, rescue squad and church dinners and events, at each of which he was readily available to discuss county matters with anyone who wished to speak with him. When one surveyed those in public service careers, no one surpassed John in the level of dedication and commitment.
One of John’s principal concerns was seeing that justice was distributed equally to all citizens. Particularly on land issues, he wanted everyone involved in a proposed project to have a say in order that no one would have been left unheard when a resolution was achieved. Having had the privilege of serving on the board of supervisors, I was able to observe firsthand the extraordinarily high quality of his concern for the rights of his fellow citizens.
John and Brenda built their home on family land overlooking the Potomac’s entry into Chesapeake Bay. The mouth of the Potomac is the widest river estuary in the world, and the Virginia shore is subject to pounding surf causing scarring erosion. John was concerned about the loss of land up and down the Northumberland shoreline and often commented on the lack of wisdom attendant to those in colonial times in setting the territorial boundary at the low water mark on the south shore, rather than in the middle of the river.
This past weekend John died at his home, leaving a wonderful legacy to the people of Northumberland County, the Northern Neck and the Commonwealth as a whole. In all matters of importance over the decades of his service, his was a significant contribution to the betterment of the process of government. He always considered himself a citizen, who like Cincinnatus, laid down his plowshare to give of his abilities for the betterment of others.
John Ernest Burton, June 19, 1930 – August 31, 2019. R.I.P.