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A legend

A legend

Teri Rizvi October 23, 2020

Father Norbert Burns, S.M., 1924-2020.

Father Norbert Burns, S.M. ’45, who taught a marriage course to more than 27,000 University of Dayton students, died Aug. 28. He was 96.

The well-loved priest never missed a class in nearly 60 years of teaching. He touched countless others as a marriage counselor, radio host and presider over weddings and Masses. 

Portrait of Father Burns.“I first came to know Father Burns through the eyes of alumni during my first year as president. The deep affection, the lessons about relationships, the heartwarming stories of a caring teacher — I knew I had to meet this legend,” said Eric F. Spina, University of Dayton president.

“I learned that this legend was not a giant but rather a gentle, loving, simple man who dedicated his life to his beloved Mary and his beloved University of Dayton. If I close my eyes now, I can still feel the warmth of his embrace and his powerful words of faith whispered in my ear. I will miss him.”

On social media, alumni called him “a great educator and an even greater person,” “one of my favorite professors ever” and “my professor and cheerleader and amazing support in all matters of the heart.”

Those who took his Christian Marriage course remember his hospitable, gracious nature, his willingness to tackle conventional wisdom and controversial topics — and his enduring message about relationships, which are built, he said, on friendship.

“The best kind of preparation you can have for married life is how you are as a friend,” he told his students.

“The best kind of preparation you can have for married life is how you are as a friend.”

With his Roman collar tucked in his breast pocket, he bounded into class 15 minutes early so he could personally greet each student. In his fast-paced class, he rarely referred to notes.

“He helped young people think realistically about marriage, and he was very pastoral,” said Brother Raymond L. Fitz, S.M. ’64, president emeritus. “He could communicate the spirit of what Jesus wanted in marriage — love, mercy and forgiveness.”

President Emeritus Daniel J. Curran called Burns a fixture on campus and a supportive, loving colleague. “His death is a big loss. He was inspirational and zany, and students just loved him,” he said.

A Cleveland native, Burns served 77 years as a Marianist religious and 67 years as a Marianist priest. He earned a Doctor of Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum) in Rome in 1955 and a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland in 1954. 

For 25 years, he hosted a Dayton call-in radio show, Challenge of Modern Day Marriage, on WVUD-FM. For years, he spent nearly every night until midnight in his campus office counseling couples, and he’d perform two or three weddings a week.

For nearly a century, he invited others into relationships — the one word he said defined his life’s work.

“Call it love, communication, friendship, belongingness, whatever you want,” Burns said. “It’s the greatest gift you have.”

Learn — always — from Father Burns