"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
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
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
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.