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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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The most in-depth, comprehensive site about the Skagit

Covers from British Columbia to Puget Sound. Counties covered: Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan, Snohomish & BC. An evolving history dedicated to committing random acts of historical kindness
Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp (bullet) Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Obituary: Fairhaven's 'mayor' Burns dies at 80

(Bobby Burns)
Bellingham Herald, Sept. 15, 1980
      Robert "Bobby" Burns, 80, who referred to himself as the "ornery" mayor of Fairhaven, died Friday in a local hospital. He was born June 1, 1900, in Indiana, and was a Bellingham resident for 40 years. He was an active member of the Senior Citizens Club.
      He worked mainly as a plumber and heating engineer, and spent some years in Alaska as a laborer. He came to Bellingham in 1923, following a tour in the Army and [after living in other cities], has been a Fairhaven resident since 1939.
      About 20 years ago, he was designated "honorary mayor" of the South Side, a title relinquished by the late Chip Groom. Burns was known in the Fairhaven community as a drinking buddy, a teller of tales, and one of the last survivors of a group of old bachelors whose faded dreams were born of hard work, hard playing and hard drinking on the South Side.
      He reportedly worked as an unofficial night watchman in the Fairhaven business district, rising early every morning to rattle all the doors. He also brought fresh cut flowers to a number of businesses every day.
      Funeral services will be at 3 p.m. Tuesday at Bayview Cemetery under the direction of Jones Funeral Home.

Personal memories of Bobby

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore, ©2007
      Well, first of all, he wasn't the poet. The closest he came to poetry was imitating Dylan Thomas one time because I read a description to him of what Dylan's boozy bouts were like. It seems like just yesterday when I used to sit at the bar of the Kulshan Tavern in Fairhaven and drink schooners of draft beer while reading everything from Anthropology texts to Kurt Vonnegut. I would hear the door open and a whirlwind would blow in from the corner. Bobby Burns was back, having made his rounds of Fairhaven, running errands and cadging drinks from one bar to another. He had a routine and the Kulshan was usually last on his route in the afternoons because most of us were college students, with very little spare change.
      Bobby and I were never "friends," per se. I think I wound up being one of his regular acquaintances because I never raised my voice to him or told him to shut up or shunned him, no matter how exasperating he could be. Rex and Marion Odell, the owners of the Kulshan, usually tolerated him and Marion sometimes showed affection when Bobby wasn't being a pest. They had the last 16-ounce schooners of beer for a quarter anywhere, at least that I knew of and I was a bartender at the time. That is what we now call a pounder, which now costs $2-3. So when I had a spare quarter and he wasn't overly obnoxious, I would invest the coin, hoping I would get some interesting conversation in return.
      Occasionally he could be contemplative. At times like that, we would repair to the large table in the front, on the 12th Street side. I suspect that one reason why we got along was because he liked the fact that I was a veteran, as he was, but he had served 40 years earlier, also in the Army. I never got a sense of where he actually served or how good of a soldier he was. His story usually changed every time, with different posts and different ranks and different stories of hard-ass sergeants who gave him a rough time. But sometimes he would wax rhapsodic and talk about what he called the good times, when he had a job during World War II and there weren't so many men around, most of the Fairhaven young guys having enlisted or having been drafted. I had to laugh sometimes when he would relate how he was a ladies man during the '40s, but maybe it was true. He apparently never married but he hinted at many wild affairs and how he jumped out of more than one bedroom window when absent husbands came home.
      Then there were the bunnies. He had a couple of hutches behind his old shack and one day he took me over there after he learned that I grew up on a poultry farm in the Utopia district east of Sedro-Woolley and that I tended 20-30 rabbits at a time. His favorite joke was about the salesman and the smart pills that the farmer sold him, the punch-line having to do with what rabbits left on the screened floor of their pens. He would slap his knees and chortle every time, spinning around and turning almost apoplectic with laughter, no matter how many times he told it.
      Whenever there was a new batch of bunnies, he would put one or two of the little creatures into his baggy old suit coat. He knew he would be kicked out of whichever restaurant or bar he visited that day, once he produced the bunnies, but he carried them around anyway. He would wait until Rex went in the back and when Marion's back was turned, he pulled the bunny out and set it on the bar. He would be sitting there feeding it pellets or a piece of lettuce when Marion would appear and give him The Look. She would just point towards the door and out he would slouch, as if he were a dog being kicked.
      In 1968, I was elected ASB President at Western Washington State College, up on Sehome Hill, after a campaign that started as a joke. None of us expected that I would win, but once I did, on a fluke, we had to actually fulfill the grandiose expectations we spun in typical political fashion. The corner round booth at the Kulshan was our roundtable, without King Arthur anywhere in sight. By mid afternoons we were usually there, spinning fantasies and those of other persuasions jeering and muttering about what pretentious fakes we were.
      Sometime during that year, about three weeks went by without an appearance by Bobby and I became concerned, actually missing the old coot. One afternoon I strolled over to his house and found him looking ashen. He always looked like Mephistopheles, but that day he looked like the old joke we used to share — having one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. I drove him over to St. Luke's and the nurses told me that he really was going to croak if he didn't start eating right and taking care of himself. I took him shopping at the Thriftway and he had the devil's own way with picking odd assortments of gourmet items to go with his chowder peas and hominy.
      But that time, when I took him home, he actually invited me in and I was literally taken aback by the pigpen that paraded as his bedroom and parlor. The whole scene was ghastly and obviously contributed to his tubercular state. So I went back to the Kulshan "office" and convened the kitchen cabinet to see what we could do. Within a couple of days we had a team of yentas, both male and female, and boxes full of brushes and cleansers and mop-heads and off we marched to Chez Bobby. He was at the hospital for tests for the whole afternoon so we knew we had a few hours to clean the place from stem to stern.
      The kitchen was a mess but we had it fairly tidy within an hour. It was the bedroom that made me gasp with horror. I went over to his bed and drew down what I thought was the bedspread. You may find this hard to imagine but the cloth covering was threadbare and when I lifted it up, a cloud formed above the bed, a combination of mostly dead moths but some still alive. We all laughed in amazement that anyone could crawl under there for a nighty-night. I sent someone downtown to buy a couple sets of sheets and pillowcases, and someone else went to the Sally Ann for covers and a new-used bedspread. By the time that Bobby was fetched from the krankenhaus, the house had been transformed.
      I remember when he climbed the stairs and walked in the front door, he had a conniption fit, as he called it, waving his cane in the air, damning us all to hell for "disturbing his things," which of course we had. We even put new-used Sally Ann curtains on his windows and scraped a year's worth of sludge off the windows. It was a beautiful early spring afternoon and the sunlight flooded the place. I sent everyone home so that he would get over being embarrassed, and once we were there alone, we shared a beer and he returned to a human state.
      "Why did you all do that?" he asked with real wonderment in his eyes and voice. "Because we want to have you around for another ten years, you old fart," I answered. "You might even make 80." "Not very likely," he laughed. "I'm still mad at ye, sonny, but I guess this is better. Maybe I'll get used to all this color and new-fangled stuff. We'll see." Then I got busy with a new job and didn't see Bobby as much. When I thought about him today, I oddly could not remember any time when we specifically discussed Dan Harris, even when I temporarily managed Pluto's Tavern on 11th Street and a lot of Fairhaven historical types used to show up there to bend their elbows.
      I moved away a couple of years later, a new wife and baby having taken up most of my time and then a temporary move back to Sedro-Woolley. I rarely saw Bobby and then I moved to California. When I came back up one time on vacation in about 1974 or so, I stopped by to check in at the Kulshan and Marion told me that Bobby had asked now and then where the young whippersnapper pol had gone off to. By then he had been 86'ed from the bar because he was getting too cranky too often and was actually driving customers away.
      But he did make it to 80. I wish I had paid more attention and asked him more questions about the good old days in Fairhaven. If he had answered seriously, I might have learned a lot. I just hope that if he died at home, it was under that colorful quilt with the St. Joseph's Coat design. I suspect that wherever he wound up, there are still bunnies crawling on the bar around him.

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Story posted April 17, 2007, last updated Oct. 9, 2007 . . . Please report any broken links so we can update them
This article originally appeared in Issue 38 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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