Brian Burns ’53
Brian P. Burns, the grandson of a poor immigrant from County Kerry, Ireland, grew up with the value of hard work and the importance of education instilled into him by his parents, The Honorable John J. and Alice Burns. Indeed, these messages, grounded in his father’s life story—a classic American dream tale—have inspired and shaped his own life’s path.
When Brian’s dad was only ten years old, his father, a Boston motorman, was run over by a street car outside Boston Symphony Hall, crushing his legs. With no disability or food stamps back then, young John, one of nine children, left school for a couple of years to work, selling newspapers to help support the family. John was a brilliant student, and recognizing his exceptional gift, a local priest sought help from Boston College High School. The Jesuit priests offered him a scholarship to BC High and later to Boston College.
After graduating from BC in 1921, John attended Harvard Law School, earning the prestigious Doctor of Juridical Science degree, and became the youngest professor on the faculty in the history of the school. At 29 years old, he set another record as the youngest man appointed to the Massachusetts Superior Court. In 1934, John, a close advisor to Joseph P. Kennedy, was selected as the first general counsel in the newly formed Federal Securities and Exchange Commission, yet another testament to his exceptional character and intellect.
Determined to ensure that his own children received a great education, John sent his four sons—Daniel ’50, Robert ’51, Brian ’53 and Michael ’58—to St. Sebastian’s School. In the fall of 1949, Brian joined his two older brothers on Nonantum Hill, commuting from Belmont each day. Clever and witty, he quickly made many friends at St. Sebastian’s as he excelled in both academics and athletics. Brian was a two-year member of the varsity basketball team, winning the New England Prep School Championship both years, and served as captain his senior year. He also worked on The Walrus all four years, as well as The Arrow yearbook.
Brian has great memories of his days as an Arrow, the lessons he learned there and the many wonderful priests who served as his teachers and coaches. He recalls how Monsignor Flanagan stretched him, especially in the Classical languages; to this day, he is still known to quote a Latin or Greek phrase, whether it’s in a business setting or to one of his 15 grandchildren. “I also learned a great deal through the athletic experience—how to win, how to lose and how to compete vigorously,” recalled Brian. The passion he developed for reading and writing while at St. Sebastian’s played a role in his life-long love of Irish history and literature.
After graduating from St. Sebastian’s in 1953, Brian attended The College of the Holy Cross. Just shy of his graduation from Holy Cross in May 1957, his father passed away suddenly at 56 years old. In Archbishop Richard Cushing’s eulogy to the late judge, he noted “in almost everything he did, he proved to have been the youngest to have done it.” Brian followed in his father’s footsteps, graduating from Harvard Law School at age 23, and went on to become a nationally regarded business attorney and executive, currently serving as Chairman of BF Enterprises, Inc. His broad range of experience has led to his election or appointment to the boards of major corporations, as well as professional, governmental and charitable organizations. Among his many accolades, Brian received the American Free Enterprise Award in 2012.
His father’s pervasive influence drove Brian’s efforts as a philanthropist as well. John was an active Irish scholar who had done many charitable things for Ireland. Never forgetting his roots, Brian dedicated himself to Irish causes. In 1963, he became the youngest director of the American Irish Foundation, and by the mid-1980s, he had overseen its merging with The Ireland Fund to form The American Ireland Fund. Since the merger became effective on St. Patrick’s in 1986 during a ceremony presided over by President Ronald Reagan at the Irish Embassy, the fund has collected over $650 million in support of Irish charities that promote art, culture, peace and community development in Ireland.
As a way to permanently honor his father, Brian established the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College in 1986. The library, recently recognized as the most beautiful in the country, is home to the most comprehensive assortment of Irish history and culture in the U.S. Brian also devoted himself to building his personal collection of Irish art over the course of five decades, ultimately becoming the largest of its kind by a private collector. Born out of his desire to promote and celebrate these hidden treasures, including work from the 18th century to the present day, the collection has been exhibited in museums across the U.S. and in Ireland and is beautifully illustrated in the magnificent book, A Rising People—The Brian P. Burns Collection of Irish Art.
In 2013, Brian was inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame along with former U.S. Vice President, Joe Biden, for his many invaluable contributions as an Irish-American. In recognition of his lifetime of service, Brian was nominated by President Donald Trump to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Ireland in December 2016. Unfortunately, several months after his nomination, Brian reluctantly had to withdraw his name due to health concerns.
As part of his father’s legacy to him, Brian has lived by the following principle: “To whom much has been given, so much more is expected in return.” He and his wife, Eileen, recently made a very generous gift to the Spirit & People Campaign, establishing The Honorable John J. Burns Scholarship Fund, another fitting tribute to his dad. “Neither I, nor my brothers or sisters, would have had a first-class education if somebody hadn’t reached out to that 10-year-old newspaper boy in the streets of Harvard Square and given him a free education, and thereby ignited a burning flame for him to succeed and to do great things while here on Earth.” Grateful for the education he received at St. Sebastian’s, Brian is proud of the school it has become today and knows his father would feel the same way.