As local residents mourn Frank Burns, 67, a Beverly native who died Jan. 8, about a month after he suffered a heart attack, they remember a man who had a ball in helping people with special needs.
When Burns was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the early 1970s, his dorm roommate used a wheelchair, and Burns received a stipend from the school for living in such an arrangement.
However, receiving that stipend made Burns feel uncomfortable, so he donated it to programs for people with disabilities.
He then took a job driving a university van on campus to provide transportation for students with disabilities. He also became lifelong friends with his roommate, Dave Beekstra.
For Burns, that college experience was the unofficial start of a career helping people with special needs, and it was a ball for him—and those whose lives he touched—that made all the difference.
As a coach with the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA), Burns led teams to success around the world, and he went on to become NWBA executive director and a member of the NWBA Hall of Fame.
According to his brother, Peter Burns, an energetic personality, selflessness and passion for coaching athletes with disabilities enabled Frank Burns to open doors for others.
“He said he always wanted them to have an opportunity to play,” Burns said. “He saw barriers in the world, and it became his goal to break down those barriers for other people.”
Burns truly cared about people with disabilities, which earned the affection of many. At UW-Whitewater, he needed money for tuition, and university officials who oversaw services for students with disabilities urged administrators to allow Burns to pay in-state tuition.
For his efforts, Burns received a community service award from the university.
After graduating, he earned a master’s degree in therapeutic recreation at the University of Kentucky, where he worked in the Office of the Commissioner of the NWBA. He also developed the nation’s fifth intercollegiate wheelchair basketball program, the University of Kentucky Wheel Kats, and the nation’s eighth women’s wheelchair basketball team, the Lady Kats.
Burns later returned to UW-Whitewater to coach the school’s wheelchair basketball team to its first national championship.
Known as “Coach Frank,” he then led national wheelchair basketball teams to international success.
Burns was the head coach of the USA men’s paralympic team that won gold in Seoul, Korea in 1988, and he was an assistant coach for the men’s team that won a world championship in Sydney, Australia, in 1998 and an assistant for the paralympic team that won a bronze medal in Sydney in 2000.
Will Waller, CEO of the NWBA, played for Burns in the late 1990s. He said Burns overflowed with energy and knowledge of the game.
“His passion was infectious,” Waller said. “If we were playing Canada, who was our rival at the time, if he could have gone in the chair and played, he probably would have. He was a motivator in every sense of the word. He would push the team. He would have some very creative concepts about how to run the offense or get going in transition. He was very much a smart tactician of the game and very much a great motivator. He had some innovative tactics for the team to employ on the court.”
Waller said the NWBA is focused on winning but is more about “creating and improving the quality of life for people who come into the sport.”
Burns embraced that concept, Waller said, and was skilled at “really convincing [his athletes] that they have more potential than maybe they thought they had.”
Burns also loved cracking jokes, Waller said, but never at the expense of others. He always lifted people up.
“He was an entertainer,” Waller said. “He liked to use levity to bring people together. He was a great storyteller.”
Burns was the first executive director of the NWBA, serving from 2000-2002, and after being inducted into the NWBA Hall of Fame, he was the committee chairman of its hall of fame.
He conducted wheelchair basketball clinics in 17 states and five countries, including Japan, Korea, Bahrain, Canada and Mexico, and organized NWBA national development camps for 20 years.
He also secured national television coverage of the 1997 NWBA National Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in Birmingham, Ala.
Although Burns didn’t have any children, to many people, he was known as “Uncle Frank.”
He had a radiant personality.
“He was very memorable,” Peter Burns said. “When he walked into a room or into a gym, you could just feel the energy. He was unbelievable.”
Burns lived in Hyde Park for the last 17 years, and he was the physical education teacher at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, which is a residential treatment center and therapeutic school in Chicago for children with behavioral and emotional issues.
He gave every student a nickname and helped them gain confidence. Peter Burns said his brother’s ability to work with kids was his “greatest gift,” and after his heart attack, those students wrote him get-well cards, thanking him for his guidance.
Family members hung the cards in Burns’ hospital room and plan to display them at his funeral services.
Burns’ obituary appears here.
A proud graduate of Christ the King Elementary School, Burns was a member of the school’s Class of 1966 boys basketball team that finished with a record of 103-3.
At his 50th-year reunion at Christ the King, Burns brought along video footage that he had edited of old games, which elicited great memories and lots of laughs.
Burns was loud and boisterous, his brother said, but never about his own success.
“He was just really vibrant,” Peter Burns said. “He spoke loud about others, but he was quiet about his achievements in life.”