In Loving Memory
Philip Ambler Burns
June 16, 1957 – November 12, 2015
My dear son Philip.
Each of God’s creatures possesses a shining light within. Some are destined to shine forth upon a hilltop where all can see and many will follow. Some illuminate the valleys to guide and benefit those close to them. And some pass through storms and difficulties that, for a time, hide their lights under a bushel, as the saying goes. But these lights, too, burn just as brightly as all the rest.
In his lifetime, Philip passed through each of these phases, always with brightness undiminished. For those who have known him only in recent years, I would like to characterize his ways in earlier as well as later times.
Philip was a conscientious worker who devoted himself fully to responsibilities ranging from his education through his professional duties, and through countless worthy self-initiated projects, to the love and care of those dearest to him, in particular his dear wife Crystal.
He obtained a good education in Civil Engineering and, while still in school, he accepted part-time employment with an engineering firm, both for the experience and to save money for the future. In this role, his courage stunned us all as he was routinely lowered into deep boreholes, making sure that they had not collapsed before concrete was poured. And, inspecting construction projects underway, this man in his early twenties summoned the courage when necessary to tell hard-bitten, experienced supervisors when they had not done the job properly, and would have to tear it out and start again.
He detested being idle. One of his ground-breaking publications, PB’s Quick Index to Bird Nesting, was born during the period when he was seeking full-time employment after graduation. He took the financial risk of printing 10,000 copies, all of which were sold. Other book-related projects included a jointly authored guide to used-book dealers in the mid-Atlantic region, and his business Outdoor Books East, promoting and selling books about outdoor environments and activities. This business produced a spectacular catalog in which he personally summarized the contents of each of the several hundred books in stock.
Among Philip’s many hobbies, wildlife photography was particularly noteworthy. Not only did he achieve a high level of photographic art, but he also displayed his usual astonishing courage to gain the best vantage points. Taking pictures of eagles from a mountain ridge accessible only by canoe on a stream with raging rapids. Pictures of rattlesnakes up close, from the midst of their den where the creatures seemed to hide under every rock. And pictures of bats leaving their cave on a remote mountain top in the darkness of night. These pictures we still have as reminders of his work.
During his nineteen years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philip designed and determined capacities for numerous flood-control projects. Not relying solely on the hydraulic models in common use, on his own initiative he created more accurate mathematical models to make these determinations. Later, it was repeatedly demonstrated that his own calculations produced more accurate and safer designs than did the usual models.
Following an early retirement from the Corps, Philip continued to seek beneficial projects for his attention. The greatest achievement of his retirement years was loving and marrying Crystal, and his devoted efforts to improve her prospects for a good life after he was gone. Not only did he encourage and instruct, but he willingly entered bankruptcy while making sure that she would be provided for through the rest of her life.
In recent years, I enjoyed frequent phone calls from Philip, always beginning with a friendly, specially intoned “Hello, Dad…” that I now deeply miss. These phone calls afforded wonderful opportunities for mutual understanding, particularly as I reminded him of the many worthy accomplishments that he could be proud of, and as I got his understanding for various actions by his parents in the early years – actions that he did not understand at the time, but finally recognized as being based on our love and caring for him.
As I reflect on Philip’s life, some of the photos that come most to mind are these:
Jim Burns, Philip’s father