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By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN â David R. Burnham, a Republican political force in town for nearly 20 years, a prominent businessman, contracting industry activist and a farmer with deep roots in 4-H and the Washington County Fair, died Monday after a nine-month battle with cancer.
He was 64 and the owner of Burnham Excavating, Inc., a career path he started down immediately after high school. He went on to become a lobbyist for the Rhode Island Independent Contractors and Associates, served on a state technical review committee for septic wastewater and was known nationally for his expertise in that field.
He was a member of the North Kingstown School Committee in the late 1970s and a Town Council member for 10 years.
A large and hardy man â his mom, Shirley says âhe was always a good-size youngsterâ â Burnham, known to all simply as Dave, is remembered throughout South County as a gentle soul who was considerate of his neighbors and loved his prize cattle.
Walter and Dorothy Taylor, longtime Grange members who live on Old Baptist Road, were saddened to hear of Daveâs passing.
âWe live next door to where he used to bale hay,â says Dorothy. âHeâd go by and weâd say âThere goes Dave again.â He always went to the Slocum Grange breakfasts and he came early. He always had a smile for everyone. We knew him through 4-H and he was a great tractor man. He didnât cut hay this year so I knew [his illness] was getting bad.â
Shirley Burnham says her son, one of three boys, was running an antique tractor show last fall when he became extremely exhausted. His cancer was diagnosed in September and he had been undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments ever since.
Richard Burda, retired from Providence Gas, grew up in the north end of town where he and Burnham were childhood friends.
âOver the years,â Burda reflects, âhe has, among other things, been the master of ceremonies at our high school reunions, including a year ago. He was bigger than life, literally and figuratively, always very friendly and outgoing. I remember him always driving his tractor in the parades in Wickford.â
A collector of antique farm equipment who was dedicated to a simple life, Burnham surprised many when he entered politics.
âHe continued to surprise me with how effective he was,â notes Burda. âMy wife [Gail] was on the School Committee in the late â80s and early â90s. Iâve seen what it can be like to be involved at that level of town government. Dave was always easy-going and kind of quiet so for him to take on something like that and become very quickly a natural at it was amazing.â
Republican Bill Pennoyer, widely known for organizing the townâs parades, served with Burnham on the School Committee.
âHe was always a stalwart to retain proper decorum during meetings and always showed a concern to give everyone an opportunity to speak,â he recalls. âHe used his tractor for many, many years to pull a trailer which held the Lafayette Band.â
âThey were one of the lead groups,â says Pennoyer. âThe band kept a great cadence for the marchers. People along the parade route showed their appreciation. He was a mainstay in the business community and an important person of his era.â
Former Lafayette Band president John Armstrong explains that for many years the group didnât participate in the parade because theyâre a concert ensemble and ânot marching people. Dave Burnham was on the Town Council and I knew him from years and years ago; his wife and he attended First Baptist Church in Wickfordâ where Armstrong is also a member.
He asked Burnham if heâd pull two wagons, borrowed from Schartner Farms, with his tractor.
âHe agreed and heâs been doing it for a number of years.â
Even while gravely ill, Dave performed that duty again this Memorial Day, a final act of patriotism and devotion.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at email@example.com.