Jaywalking: Remembering Howard Burns

Published: 3/18/2019 9:18:00 PM

I never met Howard Burns. Despite both of us being Greenfield natives, I wouldn’t have known him if we bumped into each other on the street. The name didn’t even ring a bell when I first saw the obituary from the Springfield Republican laid out on my desk just over a week ago. 

But Howard Burns was a known man to many. How do I know this? Because that first obituary was one of several correspondences from folks around the county inquiring about his death and if I planned to write about it on these pages.

Howard Burns passed away on March 7 at the Holyoke Soldiers Home at the age of 88. According to his obituary, he died peacefully in his sleep, which is the way we all hope to go some day. He was laid to rest this past Saturday.

Burns grew up in Greenfield and graduated from Greenfield High School in 1949. He played football, basketball and baseball for Stan Benjamin during his years at GHS. He moved on to attend and play baseball for the University of Massachusetts (where he received degrees in physical education and mathematics), but was drafted into the U.S. Army during his time in college and wound up deployed during the Korean War, where he served as a cryptographer. He played baseball at UMass in 1952 before leaving for the Army, and then again in 1955 and 1956 after returning from service. He married his college sweetheart Barbara (Rugani) in 1956, and the two moved to Westfield in 1962, where they lived until the time of Burns’ passing.

After graduating from UMass, Burns began a coaching and teaching career at Springfield Technical High School and later Springfield Central, where he put the knowledge gained from playing under Benjamin and UMass coach Earl Lorden to good use. He coached three sports — baseball, basketball and soccer — but is most remembered for his time in the dugout coaching baseball at Springfield Tech, where he helped produce five western Mass. champions, four state titles, 13 Interschool League titles and a western Mass. record 41-game winning streak. He wound up winning state titles in all three sports according to his obituary, including a pair of state basketball titles at Central.

He coached the Springfield Tech baseball team from 1961 until 1986, and from 1968 until 1970 won three consecutive state titles and went 55-5, including the 41-game streak. His 1966 and 1967 teams each made the WMass finals as well, giving him one of the best five-year runs of any team in western Mass. history as his teams went 88-10 during those five years. He added two more western Mass. crowns in 1973 and 1975, and his final state title game in 1975.

His two state basketball championships at Central came in 1987 (the first year that Central was in existence after Springfield Tech and Springfield Classical merged), and in 1991. The 1991 roster included future NBA player Travis Best, who former Recorder sportswriter Mark Durant reminded me set a western Mass. single-game scoring record on Feb. 8, 1991 when he scored 81 points against Putnam during a 143-85 victory by Central. That Central team, unsurprisingly, was unbeaten.

His accolades landed him in the Springfield Public Schools Sports Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 2007, and his 1991 Central team was also enshrined two years ago. He was also inducted into the Western Mass. Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015. 

While at Greenfield High School, Burns was a three-sport athlete. His 1948 Greenfield football team was a special squad and nearly won a western Mass. title that year.

Burns was a fullback on the 1948 team. Stan Benjamin’s boys lost the season-opener to Pittsfield but ran the table from there, going 8-0 the rest of the way. Some interesting takeaways from that season.

Greenfield traveled to Oneonta, N.Y., to take on Oneonta High School on Halloween Eve and the manager forgot to pack the green jerseys, so the Greenies had to wear their brand new white jerseys. In one article, it mentioned that the white jerseys made Burns and halfback Edwin “Sonny” Allen look like “elusive spirits running through the New Yorkers’ line,” as Greenfield earned a 30-7 victory. That game also saw Robert “Rabbit” Graves score the only touchdown of his career. Graves later coached the Greenfield hockey team for years.

On Armistice Day, Greenfield faced unbeaten Westfield and handed the Bombers their only loss of the season with a 6-0 victory. A third-quarter touchdown pass from Burns to Dick Greene “caught everyone napping and the only tally was scored,” according to an article. While Burns was a running back, during that time many of the passes were thrown by halfbacks and fullbacks, as the quarterback took the snap and then generally served as a blocker in the running game.

The season closed with a 14-7 victory over Turners Falls on Turkey Day. Robert “Nook” Burniske – a name I recognize due to the Greenfield Lightlife Triathlon award named in his honor – blocked a punt by Turners Falls’ Bucky Nadeau into the end zone for a safety for the first two points in that game. Burns then hit Kenny Saleske with a screen pass for a touchdown, and Allen scored on a 14-yard run. 

Greenfield, Westfield and Pittsfield all tied with 8-1 records for the best records in Class A that season. It’s been said that Greenfield likely should have been crowned WMass football champions, but due to a win over Wakefield that season being classified as a Class B victory, Westfield was named champion and went on to play in the Peanut Bowl.

 

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder Sports Editor. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com




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