WHAT’S IN A NAME? W.F. Burns Middle School

Published 11:00 am Saturday, February 25, 2023

Some people come to work every day, sit at their desk and do the bare minimum. It takes a great leader and a great man to inspire a respect for himself and a respect for learning the way William F. Burns did for the Fairfax community.

Burns was the principal of what is now called W. F. Burns Middle School from 1942 to 1973. During his time, Burns lived within the community, nearly 100 yards away from the school itself. He spent a lot of his own time on the maintenance of the school grounds.

“You could almost say that he lived at the school,” said former student Richard Carter.

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Roger Walker and Marlene Magby, of Lanett, were students under Burns when the school was still named Rehobeth High School. They, like the rest, had a nickname for him. 

“Most people called him Professor Burns. We called him ‘Prof,’” Walker said.

Burns was also the recreation director during the summer months. The school was the epicenter of the community, especially for the youth. 

“They didn’t have many places designated as a recreation center in the Black community except the school,” Carter said.

Though he was born in Alexander City, Burns was a proud member of the Fairfax community. He got his high school diploma and junior college degree from Alabama A&M. Later, he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Alabama State University (at the time, Alabama State Teachers College).

A dedicated student, he completed training and began his career at 19 years old. He taught at small community schools. At this time, schools were only in session for three or four months. His first school in Chambers County was in Antioch in the southwest of the county. It was a one-teacher school.

He later taught at Five Points and Waverly, where he also served as the principal. He moved on to Fairfax in 1942 at Rehobeth Junior High, which served African American students from ages first through ninth grade.

“It was a great school,” Carter said. “We had dedicated teachers.”

Burns and his teachers were so dedicated that they took students to get their SAT and ACT tests, often paying from their own pockets.

“Burns and his wife, Susie E. Burns, were both committed educators who believed strongly in the transformative power of education,” said Dr. Loretta Burns, Burns’ daughter. 

While at Rehobeth Junior High, Burns distinguished himself as a strict disciplinarian and a respectable community leader. 

“Everybody knew him in the community … He made sure that we was doing what we had to do. Even out in the community — we saw him and we straightened up,” Magby said.

The school had to raise funds for school projects and supplies throughout the year. During the cold winter months, it was the student’s responsibility to put the coal into the furnaces. 

Every Friday, the school hosted a sock hop or dance that students paid a nickel or 10 cents to go to. Often, these school events paid for the school’s supplies. The books they used were secondhand from one of the other high schools in the community that served White students.

“We made do with what we had,” Carter said. 

Still, Burns worked hard to build the school up. He often mowed the lawn outside and patrolled the halls to ensure everything was running smoothly.

Still, he supported his students in all their successes. In 1965, the year that Carter graduated, Burns spent his own money to buy letterman jackets for the entire team.

Susie Burns was a teacher at the school as well. She was well loved by the students. Susie and the other teachers acted both as secretaries and guidance counselors for students.

“He was fond of quoting John Dewey’s definition of education as ‘the continuous reconstruction of experiences,’” Loretta said. “He, and his wife, felt that anyone had the capacity to learn and grow, and they labored to provide the best possible learning experiences for all students under their guidance and supervision.”

In 1959, the school became a high school. During the desegregation period, the school’s name was changed to Valley Junior High. 

“He ran the school, and he ran it well,” Magby said.

In 1973, after 43 years, Burns retired from VJHS. However, he continued to be active in the community. In his retirement, he was the project director for the Head Start program, which served Chambers, Tallapoosa and Coosa counties. He did this from 1973 to 1981.

“Burns lived a life of extraordinary dedication and service and was respected by all.  His impact on the students and the communities he served is immeasurable,” Loretta said. “He set high standards for himself and for others, and his example and legacy continue to inspire.”

He was a member of the board of directors for George H. Lanier Memorial Hospital. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was a part of the Chambers County Retired Teachers Association and the Alabama Education Association. He was a lifetime member of the the National Education Association.

Even after retirement, Burns fostered his love learning with Shakespeare and poetry. He enjoyed staying active and especially liked baseball.

“Burns was a man of keen intelligence and many talents.  He was a powerful and eloquent lecturer and was often guest speaker at school, civic, and religious events,” Loretta said. “He had a commanding presence and a forceful personality, and he made a strong impression on everyone he met.”

He was a strong supporter of the Hall Memorial CME Church.

In 1995, the Chambers County Board of Education changed the school’s name to W. F. Burns Middle School, but that wasn’t quite enough. The following year, the Valley council named the road off Fairfax Bypass across from the Sportsplex after Burns. 

“What a tribute. That’s the least they could do for him,” Carter said. “No one of my knowledge did more for that school than W. F. Burns.”