Bob Burns remembered as ‘dean of East End sports’

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Bob Burns (right) was joined by former Riverhead Falcons semi-pro baseball players Walter Rolle (left) and William Grodski (center) in 1994 on the Riverhead High School baseball field. The three played together in the years following the end of World War II.

The reassuring sound of a clattering typewriter filled the air. Pap! Pap-Pap! Pap!

Decades later, they remained one of the more pleasing memories from Robbie Costantini’s youth. Costantini was a young football player living in Riverhead, near the residence of Bob Burns, the former sportswriter. While Costantini and his friends played ball outside, they could hear the sound of Burns pounding out prose on his typewriter, undoubtedly providing details about the latest high school game for the local newspaper. Every now and then, Costantini remembered, one of the youngsters would yell in the direction that the typing noise was coming from, “Don’t forget about me, Mr. Burns!”

Everyone wanted to be mentioned in Bob Burns’ column, “The Sporting Whirl,” which appeared in eastern Long Island newspapers for more than four decades.

For nearly a half-century, Burns’ sportswriting touched the lives of countless athletes, coaches, fans and readers.

Burns, who became known as the “dean of East End sports,” died on Saturday. According to a statement from his family, he “passed from this life peacefully” at the Riverhead Care Center. The Riverhead man was 90 years old.

His wife of 14 years, Elaine Burns, said Bob Burns had suffered from a number of ailments such as congestive heart failure and type 2 diabetes. Most recently, she said, he was dealing with kidney problems. “Since February it’s been a downhill trip,” she said.

Burns was a prolific writer who started writing about sports in 1946 and, with the exception of a five-year spell during which he was retired, continued until 1998. He was inducted into the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame in 1991 as one of only three inductees in the sports journalism category.

To some, Burns was Mr. Riverhead Sports. He graduated from Riverhead High School, helped found the Riverhead Little League, and was one of the league’s most revered baseball coaches. With a sharp eye for talent, Burns coached the Lions team, which won about 30 league titles over the 34 years he ran the team.

“That was his life, I think,” Ronald Schmitt Sr., a former Riverhead Little League president, said. “He was there for the kids.”

A field at Stotzky Memorial Park is named after Burns, who played in slow-pitch softball games for Doc’s Tavern in that park.

Burns was born on Sept. 12, 1921, the son of Milton L. Burns and Blanche Burns. Milton Burns was the Riverhead town supervisor from 1934 to 1937.

Bob Burns was a three-sport athlete for Riverhead High School, playing football, basketball and baseball. He is enshrined in the school’s Sports Hall of Fame. Burns became a lineman for the Hobart College football team in 1942. He served in the Army Air Corp, spending time in Italy during World War II. After returning home from Europe, Burns got into the banking business, rising to the position of vice president of Suffolk County National Bank.

But there was no doubt where his heart was.

“He made his living in banking, but what he really loved was sports,” Elaine Burns said. “He loved writing about it. He would spend a lot of time at the typewriter. He was always going to work, making sure the deadline was met. … He really had such a sense of commitment to sports writing.”

Burns began his writing career by alternating between two rival Riverhead newspapers, The Riverhead News and The County Review. He said that whenever he got a $5 raise offer, he switched to the other paper. The bidding war ended when the two papers later merged to become The News-Review, which is now known as The Riverhead News-Review.

At Riverhead High School football games, Burns was a fixture on the sidelines, in all kind of weather, fair or foul, clutching a clipboard and jotting down the results of each play. He was a hands-on journalist who personally picked up the local bowling scores that would appear in the paper.

In 1995, a high school boys basketball tournament, the Bob Burns-Riverhead Classic, was named in Burns’ honor. During halftime of that year’s championship game, James Stark, the Riverhead town supervisor at the time, presented Burns with a proclamation honoring him as an “outstanding journalist and chronicler of Riverhead sports.” Dec. 16 was designated as “Bob Burns Day” in Riverhead.

“As far as we’re concerned right here in Riverhead and on the East End, you’re number one,” Stark told him.

Burns said he cringed with embarrassment by the attention he received that day, but he retained his sense of humor when addressing the crowd during the halftime ceremony. Burns, who was 74 at the time, told the crowd, “I’m very happy that, given my age, it’s not the Bob Burns Memorial.”

In later years, Burns was having increasing trouble with his vision. Before he married his third wife, Elaine, Burns wrote his final column in the spring of 1998. He was predeceased by Mary Iwinicki Burns, the mother of their two children, and by Lois Downs Burns.

Elaine Burns had known Bob Burns since well before their marriage. The two met in 1946. Elaine Burns had married Bob’s brother Jack, who died in 1954.

Elaine Burns said her late husband was “enormously witty,” and his eyes would light up when someone spoke with him. “He was a very interesting combination of very genial and he could be a real curmudgeon,” she said.

Bob Burns was also something of a fussy eater, who didn’t always eat all his vegetables. “He was terrible about vegetables unless it was corn, peas and lima beans, and of course potatoes,” she said. “He lived on peanut butter a lot.”

In addition to his wife Elaine, Burns is survived by his children, Jerry L. Burns and Connie Burns St. Laurent.

Visitation will be Thursday from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. at Reginald H. Tuthill Funeral Home, 406 East Main St., Riverhead. Funeral services will be at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, followed by interment at Riverhead Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the newly created Bob Burns Scholarship Fund to be managed by The Lions Club.

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