By Lynn R. Mitchell
[Editor’s Note: When I left Augusta County almost two weeks ago to spend time with family in Florida, Dennis Burnett was working at his job bringing jobs to the Valley. When I returned last night, he had passed away and been buried. How quickly life can change in the span of a week. I wrote this while in Florida, reflecting about this friend to so many. See also Augusta County’s Dennis Burnett passes away and Memorial Service today for Dennis Burnett.]
“I like your pictures of the county!”
Dennis Burnett was across the room heading my way after a board of supervisors meeting at the Augusta County Government Center, trademark reading-glasses-on-top-of-head, with that wide Dennis grin on his face. I looked at him quizzically. Had he been looking at my blog?
Yes, he said, laughing … and he liked the photos I took all over Augusta County — back roads, mountains, woods, sunsets. I thanked him, still surprised that he had noticed. He mentioned it several times over the past few years and every time he said something, I was flattered. But, then, Dennis always found something that he could say that was complimentary about people. It was almost as if he had a Rolodex (yeah, old school terminology) in his brain with crib notes about everyone he met.
The first time I ran into Dennis was at Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport in Weyers Cave, probably around 2000, when I was volunteering with the local Republicans and he was working at the airport. We had GOP events and fly-arounds that took place with our candidates, usually in the final few days leading up to an election, and he was the first face I met when trying to plan the events. I was still fairly new to the area, and certainly new to planning that type of GOP activity, and Dennis was nothing but friendly and welcoming, and more than that — he was nice. That blond hair and wide smile were very welcoming along with the if-you-need-anything-at-all-let-me-know helpfulness.
When he became Augusta County Economic Director in 2009, he attended almost every supervisor meeting, often giving updates about what was going on, what company he had talked with, and the ones he had lured to the county. Somewhere along the way, an assistant was hired to help. I remember sitting at the supervisors meeting the night it was announced that they had someone in mind to hire as help for Dennis. I live-Facebooked about it, joking that if I had only known, that’s the job I would have liked.
A short time after, while at the Depot Grille restaurant in Staunton with a friend, Dennis called from a nearby table, “Hey, Lynn!” Walking over, I saw he was with Timmy Fitzgerald and a lady whom he introduced as his new assistant. Stretching my hand across the table to shake hands, I laughed and said, “Oh! So you’re the one who got my job!” They all laughed but it was the usual Dennis — calling out to say hello, laughing, smiling.
I don’t pretend to know him as well as so many who grew up with him or who have worked closely with him throughout the years. It’s difficult for me to grasp that he’s gone at the young age of 49 so I cannot even imagine what they are all feeling with the loss of one so popular, so liked … so loved. And respected. And admired.
We should all be so lucky to be remembered that way when we’re gone.
The night he died, I sat with my family on the white sandy beach of the Emerald Coast of Florida at the edge of the warm waters of the Gulf, far from my Shenandoah Valley home, and took photos as the sun lowered in the western sky, eventually seeming to touch the water, and then slipping out of sight, leaving only an afterglow that eventually faded into night.
With Dennis on my mind, I posted the photos with this: “Cherish the moment of togetherness, because the sun will fall beneath the ocean, creating a sunset, and the moment might be gone too soon.” (Unknown)
Dennis’ sunset came too soon.
Photo by Lynn R. Mitchell