By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – 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 – his mom, Shirley says “he was always a good-size youngster” – 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 Dave’s passing.
“We live next door to where he used to bale hay,” says Dorothy. “He’d go by and we’d say ‘There goes Dave again.’ 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 didn’t cut hay this year so I knew [his illness] was getting bad.”
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.
“Over the years,” Burda reflects, “he 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.”
A collector of antique farm equipment who was dedicated to a simple life, Burnham surprised many when he entered politics.
“He continued to surprise me with how effective he was,” notes Burda. “My wife [Gail] was on the School Committee in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I’ve 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.”
Republican Bill Pennoyer, widely known for organizing the town’s parades, served with Burnham on the School Committee.
“He was always a stalwart to retain proper decorum during meetings and always showed a concern to give everyone an opportunity to speak,” he recalls. “He used his tractor for many, many years to pull a trailer which held the Lafayette Band.”
“They were one of the lead groups,” says Pennoyer. “The 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.”
Former Lafayette Band president John Armstrong explains that for many years the group didn’t participate in the parade because they’re a concert ensemble and “not 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 Wickford” where Armstrong is also a member.
He asked Burnham if he’d pull two wagons, borrowed from Schartner Farms, with his tractor.
“He agreed and he’s been doing it for a number of years.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org .