by Thomas P. Caldwell
PLYMOUTH — Those who knew the late Raymond S. Burton gathered on Dec. 14 at Plymouth State University in remembrance of the District 1 Executive Councilor who served the North Country for 35 years, celebrating the legacy of "a true public servant". Many of those attending were current and former elected officials who had worked with Burton.
"Hey, I'm doing what I love and loving what I do, every day," said Sen. Lou D'Allesandro of Manchester of Burton's attitude toward his job. "He loved serving the people and making a difference."
Burton's unrelenting efforts to get officials in Concord to "look north, look north," were as much a part of his legacy as his trademark "Burton For Certain" buttons and combs which he handed out to everyone he met, along with potholders that said, "No issue is too hot for Ray Burton". Remarking on their shared claim of being the longest-serving officials in their respective roles, former Gov. John Lynch said he and Burton had spent 1,040 hours together in Governor and Council meetings alone, not to mention the many committee meetings and other duties they shared. Saying he got to know Burton very well as they covered some 62,400 agenda items, Lynch said, "No doubt, he's with the Lord now, urging Him to look north, look north."
Many of the speakers had similar tales of Burton's persistence in promoting the interests of North Country residents. "He served the people, not the other way around," Lynch said.
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen recounted that, when she won election as governor, she received a congratulatory call from Burton who then immediately got on to the purpose of his call: to ask her to tour the North Country.
During her remarks at the beginning of the service, PSU President Sara Jayne Steen told of her first meeting with Burton. "He was very straightforward," she said. "He said, 'I want five things from you.' And I responded, 'I want five things from you.'" While he could be "lighthearted and amused", she said, he also could be very serious about the issues that were important to his constituents.
"Robert Frost, who taught at Plymouth in 1911 and 1912, said his goal in life was to unite his avocation with his vocation, to spend his days doing what inspired him. Ray achieved that; he shaped a life around bettering a place he loved."
Burton had attended what then was Plymouth Teachers' College, graduating in 1962, and he was a teacher and school principal who later became an adjunct faculty member at Plymouth State College's Department of Social Sciences. After he was elected to the Executive Council in 1977, he established an internship program to teach college students about the workings of government. In the years since, there have been 142 Burton interns.
One of them, Laconia High School graduate Trevor Chandler, spoke during the program, saying that Burton instilled in them the idea that no issue was too large or two small, and he followed as Burton addressed everything from housing issues to feral cats.
"We were continually mystified by his resistance to new technology," Chandler said, noting that Burton was reluctant to give up a typewriter and utilize a computer, and although they bought him a digital camera, it "disappeared" and he was back using his trusty Brownie. "And he was the only person I ever met who actually used a car phone," he said. "Facebook was superfluous to Ray," he added, "because he met people in person."
Indeed, Burton's ability to remember the first names of the people he met has impressed more than one acquaintance. Chandler noted that Burton made it a point to introduce everyone in the room, from government officials to the local spelling bee champion.
Gov. Maggie Hassan said she had heard that Ray Burton was "everywhere in the North Country" and she found that to be true when she went to dine at the Woodstock Inn. As she arrived, she saw his vintage automobile in the parking lot and discovered that he was there as a celebrity waiter at a fundraiser for a local arts group. He joined her at her table and suggested that she go upstairs to address the group, even though she had had no idea it was taking place. "It was a great introduction," she said.
Barely holding back tears, U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte spoke admiringly of Burton's efforts to fight for his constituents while remaining humble. "For years to come, public servants will look to Ray to see how things should be done. He was the gold standard of public service," she said. Speaking of what he could still have accomplished, she said, "We all know there were a lot more Burton For Certain combs to hand out."
Gov. Hassan noted that Burton, who died of cancer on Nov. 12, had asked that his memorial service be uplifting and patriotic, and it was that, with the presentation of colors by a blended honor guard of representatives from the Grafton County Department of Corrections, Department of EMS, Littleton Police Department, NH State Police, Bethlehem Fire Department, Grafton County Sheriff's Department, and the N.H. Fish and Game Department saluting his memory. Members of the PSU Chamber Singers also participated in the ceremonies.
Burton's friend and neighbor, Duane Baxter, introduced artist Craig Pursley who unveiled his painting, "A Public Servant" — a portrait of Burton standing in a characteristic pose with his Burton cap on his head. The painting will be on permanent display in Concord.
Also in his honor, Plymouth State University has established the Honorable Raymond S. Burton '62 Public Service Scholarship and a Raymond S. Burton Collection in the Lamson Library's Spinelli Archives and Special Collections to house his papers and memorabilia.