Don Burns, Millennium Hall of Fame

December 11, 2000

Richard Dunn

Don Burns, known as an easygoing gentleman with great dignity,

lived a life disputing Leo Durocher's famous line of "nice guys finish


The late Burns, who grew up in Newport Beach as an outstanding swimmer

and waterman through the city's junior lifeguard department, left a

legacy of Nice Guys Finish First.


"He was such a likable individual -- you just had to admire everything

he did," longtime friend, mentor and colleague, Al Irwin, said of Burns.

A dedicated coach, Burns touched countless lives at Newport Harbor,

Costa Mesa and Estancia high schools, as well as members in the Newport

Beach Lifeguard program.

As a 12-year-old kid, Burns joined the junior aquatics circuit in the

late 1930s under the tutelage of lifeguard captain Irwin, who started the

junior program.

Burns moved out of the area during his high school years and later

attended USC, then returned to his roots in 1953 to coach football at

Newport Harbor under Irwin. It was the beginning of a memorable

relationship between the beloved Burns and the Newport-Mesa School


Before Burns died of an apparent heart attack on Nov. 13, 1993, at age 67, he enjoyed a 31-year tour of duty with the school district that

concluded in 1984.

Burns also became a Lieutenant Lifeguard and served 47 years for the

Newport Beach program, fulfilling a promise that he'd never willingly

retire from his passion in life, aside, of course, from his family,

including wife Rose, sons John and Don Jr., and daughter Kathy.

"Our lifeguards always said Don had just one emotion, always happy,"

Jim Turner, a longtime friend and former Marine Safety Lieutenant, once


"He was always there with a big handshake and a smile. No one ever saw

him down, nor did he ever have anything impolite to say about someone. He

was just a very special man."

As a head football coach, Burns inherited a struggling team (Harbor)

and a brand new program (Mesa) as the losses outnumbered the victories.

As the Sailors' head coach for two years (1956-57), then Costa Mesa's

sideline chief for three (1960-62), Burns compiled a 13-28-3 mark as the

"nice guy" image haunted him.

But that's when Burns arrived at Estancia and helped open another new

high school in Costa Mesa, assuming the reins of the Eagles' track and

field program for several years.

"Don could really relate to the kids -- he was such an easygoing guy,"

Emil Neeme, a former basketball coach at Newport Harbor, Costa Mesa and

Mater Dei, once said.

Irwin, who has known Burns longer than anyone in the area, said the

beloved coach "put his heart and soul into (coaching) and was easy to get

along with."

Burns served as Irwin's backfield coach for three years before taking

over as head coach when Irwin was hired as the football coach at Orange

Coast College.

Irwin's final gridiron squad at Harbor in '55 was filled with seniors,

leaving the next year's team, in Burns' inaugural season as head coach,

with mostly inexperienced players.

"I can't speak highly enough of him," Irwin said of Burns, the latest

honoree in the Daily Pilot Sports Hall of Fame, of which Irwin is also a

member. "Not only was he a good coach, but he was a dear friend.

"(His death) was a real shame, because he passed very suddenly. None

of us expected any (health) problems."

Burns seemed to always be young at heart.

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