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Founder of John J. Burns Library and Former Trustee Dies at Age 85

Brian P. Burns, founder of the John J. Burns Library at Boston College and former BC Trustee, died on Aug. 12 at the age of 85, according to a University release.

“He was bigger than life,” Kelsey Burns, granddaughter of Burns and MCAS ’24, said. “I would say he was very special. He made his way to the top by working really hard.” 

He finished his undergraduate studies at the College of Holy Cross early, and by age 23, Burns earned a law degree from Harvard Law School. He later went on to serve as the chairman of BF Enterprises, Inc. and was the youngest director of the American Irish Foundation in 1963, according to the release. 

In 1986, Burns founded the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at BC, which he named after his father John J. Burns, who graduated from BC in 1921. The library, located inside of Bapst Library, is home to unique collections that highlight both Jesuit and Irish Catholic traditions. The collections are available to all BC students, faculty, and visiting researchers.

“We really have the most comprehensive collection on Ireland outside of Ireland, so that’s something that’s very distinctive about Boston College’s Special Collection,” Christian Dupont, Burns Librarian and Associate University Librarian, said.

This unique collection is the direct result of Burns’ funding, connections, and encouragement, according to Dupont. Burns and his family funded the renovations and met challenge grants to build collection endowments, he said. Burns even directly purchased some of the collections in the library himself. 

Dupont said that Burns also introduced him to many prominent figures to help the library promote its collections and acquire collections and resources.

“[Burns] was just somebody who was so, so committed to Ireland and to documenting Irish culture and promoting it,” he said. 

Kelsey said that her grandfather also greatly valued hard work. Outside of the library is a plaque commemorating Burns’ father, Kelsey’s great-grandfather, that shares the message that people can achieve a lot through hard work, she said.

“Every time I’m near [Burns Library], I see people stop and they read the little plaque about my great-grandfather,” she said. “And I think that that has an impact just because it talks about work ethic and how important that is, and that’s something my grandfather really valued.”

Her grandfather also established the Burns Visiting Scholar in the Irish Studies program through the Burns Foundation. The program, which was established in 1991, invites prominent figures involved in Irish life to the University to lecture and utilize resources from the Burns Library. The program has brought more than 40 scholars to BC, according to Dupont.

Additionally, Burns was a prominent collector of Irish art, and displayed some of his own collection in the McMullen Museum of Art in 1996.

“He loved Irish art, and he took pride in us being Irish, so he invested a lot of his money in Irish art and then would sometimes donate that art to museums or universities,” Kelsey said.

Burns served on BC’s Board of Trustees from 1998 to 2002, according to the release. During his time as a trustee, Dupont said, Burns helped establish connections and helped facilitate the University’s purchase of its only property outside of Massachusetts—a study center in Dublin, Ireland. The study center, known as BC Ireland, was purchased in 2000 and hosts students studying abroad and an eight-week summer internship program, according to BC Ireland’s website

“One of my staff said … ‘I recognize that you’ve lost an important professional contact, but also a personal friend,’ and that’s really true,” Dupont said.

Burns was inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame in 2013, according to the release. Burns was then nominated by former President Donald Trump to serve as the ambassador to Ireland in 2017, but had to withdraw due to health reasons. 

Kelsey said her grandfather made it a priority to check in on her as she began her journey at BC.

“He always told me how proud he was of me, and I knew that I could rely on him to talk about anything,” Burns said.

To honor his legacy, Kelsey said it is essential to carry on Burns’ name.

“For all of us, it’s important that his name is carried on,” she said.

Featured Image Courtesy of Capehart Photography / Wikimedia Commons

August 26, 2021
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