January 3, 2021

I saw a January 1 obituary for a Richard “Rick” Burns, and it pricked a distant memory. I wasn’t even sure I had the name correct. But his age seemed about right, as did the photo — insofar as I could recall a face I’d seen just once, half a century ago. Then reading the details did show him active in Republican politics then.

So was I. In 1972, my GOP ward leader in Albany quit, wanting me to succeed him. A meeting of committee members was called. This was when we stood for reform, and our ward was the feistiest, actually having a full committee roster. The county leadership sent some operatives to our meeting, introducing Rick Burns as our next ward leader. We’d never seen him before, but were told we had no choice. Several members got up to argue. Discussion was long and heated. Then we voted, and I was elected unanimously.

A true instance of democracy in action.

So Rick Burns was the only person ever to lose an election to Frank Robinson. And that meeting felt like my coming of age. I’d been active in campus politics, but always as an outsider, playing the quixotic clown figure. But now, at that ward meeting, I was finally the serious man. Those other guys, sent from headquarters, were the clowns.

To see that obituary, of a person whose path crossed with mine, so fleetingly, yet tellingly, so very long ago, gave me a frisson of the strangeness of life. And then I remembered that also at that meeting was a woman who’d later represent my coming of age in a different way.*




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