Few people have come to the Northern Neck with more to contribute, and who were more willing to give, than Bill Burton, who died last week at the age of 91. He spent his career and his retirement offering himself and his wealth of knowledge to those involved in solving problems, making life better for others, and in abating the tension often accompanying the decision-making processes in complex situations.
Bill was a native of Roanoke, who went away as a young man to matriculate at The College of William and Mary. After graduation, he then spent his career in public safety, specifically in the field of firefighting. He was a take-charge individual, one who knew how to pull people together for the benefit of the common good.
In 1987, Bill and his late wife, Sara Jane, moved to the Northern Neck to a home they built in Ditchley. There they gardened, enjoyed the water, and literally, “put up stakes.” In any assessment of the ranks of individuals who “counted” in our community, Bill would be among the most significant. He always was willing to share his views with those in public office, a practice he had honed from his lengthy career in firefighting. When Bill spoke, his listeners knew immediately that he was a person of substance.
Firefighting had been Bill’s vocation and avocation since his service as a teenage volunteer with the Herndon Volunteer Fire Department. He continued pursuing that interest during his time at William and Mary, after which it became his profession. Bill had a tremendously impressive way with people. He combined the depth of his knowledge with a truly winning personality, and an astoundingly amusing sense of humor.
After returning to Fairfax County, Bill rose rapidly in the fire department. The county was on the verge of converting the volunteer fire departments into a single public agency and as the newly appointed chief fire marshal, Bill led that effort. Bill always saw the “big picture,” and he realized that a professional fire department would need a means of training the crews in order for them to be successful in their mission. To that end he established what is now known as the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Academy, which remains one of Bill’s enduring legacies.
Ever the volunteer as well, here in the Northern Neck, Bill enjoyed serving with the Kilmarnock-Lancaster Volunteer Rescue Squad. Whenever he thought he could be of service to the community, he spoke up. Those in public office appreciated his wisdom and guidance, knowing that his entire motivation was to advance the common good, never thinking of himself.
From a personal standpoint, perhaps reflective of his career as a firefighter, Bill was always ready. He dressed neatly, and wore his hair as a flattop, thereby conveying his neatness, and he was uniformly on time. His house, yard and vehicles were equally as “ready” as he was. Small things mattered to Bill, and he thought that if they were not in order, neither could the big things be shipshape. No grass grew under Bill’s feet.
In the ever-present give and take among Come-heres, Been-heres, and Brought-heres (my Good Wife’s term to describe how she came to the Northern Neck), Bill came up with his own category, namely, “Glad To Be Here.” When Sara Jane died 15 years ago, Bill proclaimed that he was staying put, noting, “this is where I belong.” Indeed, he did belong here, and our community is all the better for the 35 years he spent in our midst.
Willis Horatio Burton, Jr., October 12, 1930 – January 9, 2022. R.I.P.