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Edward Burns, former president of Beech Aircraft, dies at 93

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, at 6:22 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, at 10:56 a.m.

A leader in Wichita’s early age of aviation, Edward Burns, former president of Beech Aircraft Co., died Friday.

Mr. Burns, 93, was the company’s fourth president, succeeding company co-founders Walter and Olive Ann Beech and Frank Hedrick.

A nephew of Walter and Olive Ann Beech, Mr. Burns was the last of the Beech family to lead the company.

“He worked with and developed an entire generation of Beech management,” said his son, Walter Burns.

He was loyal, considerate and supportive and could be counted upon for wise counsel and advice, said Mary Lynn Oliver, daughter of Walter and Oliver Ann Beech.

“In business, he was well respected because of his thoroughness and his thoughtful approach to problem-solving,” Oliver said.

He was intensely loyal and dedicated to the company, said Jim Gregory, who was head of community and political affairs during Burns’ tenure as president.

“Mr. Burns was a class act and a fine gentleman and an example for other people,” Gregory said. “He used to talk about the fact that the accomplishments in his career weren’t his accomplishments. They were the accomplishments of those around him.”

During the Depression “he was dirt poor,” Walter Burns said.

He was living with his grandparents in Tampa during the 1920s when Walter Beech and his brother came to town with a fleet of Travel Air airplanes to demonstrate them.

Mr. Burns took a ride.

“That triggered a love of aviation that never left him,” Walter Burns said.

In high school, he worked as a copy boy at the Birmingham News-Age Herald and advanced to cub reporter to earn money for college.

Mr. Burns moved to Wichita in 1940 to join Beech Aircraft, where he worked in the sheet metal shop for 30 cents an hour, Walter Burns said.

“He always remembered that,” Burns said. “No matter how high he rose, he always walked through the plant, talked to the men at the plant and (shook) hands.”

Not long after moving to Wichita, he left to serve in the Navy during World War II, and then attended the University of Kansas.

He met his wife, Betty, on his first day back in Wichita, spotting her across the room at the former Crestview Country Club, where he was having lunch with an uncle.

She was a young war widow with a 3-year-old son.

His uncle knew her dining companions and introduced the two of them.

They married in 1949.

One of the high points of Mr. Burns’ career was leading the company’s space division in Boulder, Colo., during the 1960s, said Walter Burns.

The division was instrumental in putting a man on the moon, he said.

The cryogenic systems made there were the life support systems that fed oxygen to the astronauts. When Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin walked on the moon, they breathed air furnished by the Beech systems.

Mr. Burns returned to Wichita in 1968 as vice president of operations and advanced quickly.

On Jan. 12, 1981, Mr. Burns was named president of the company, which had been purchased by Raytheon Co., in the previous year.

At the time, some people remarked that as a nephew of the founders, of course he was going to be president, Walter Burns said.

“It only took him 40 years to do it,” he quipped.

At Beech, Mr. Burns lived under the shadow of Walter and Olive Ann Beech.

“Olive Ann was larger than life,” Walter Burns said. “I thought she was 8 feet tall.”

Still, Mr. Burns made his own way.

“He was part of the family,” Burns said. But “it was important to him to make his own stamp on the company, not just to be Walter and Olive Ann’s nephew.”

Mr. Burns retired in 1982, before he expected, said Burns.

After Raytheon bought the company, Brainerd Holmes, then president of Raytheon, held a meeting with Mr. Burns and Mr. Hedrick.

“Brainerd was like a kid with a new toy, and he had all these grand things he wanted to do,” Burns said. “Dad said, ‘That’s all well and good, but that’s not what we need to be doing to make this company successful.’ ”

He laid out his own ideas.

After the meeting, Hedrick told Burns that he agreed with what he had said. Then Hedrick told him “’I think you might have sunk your own ship,’” Burns said.

At his own peril, Mr. Burns was willing to stand up for what he believed, he said.

“My dad never regretted that,” Burns said. “He was crushed by losing his post and retiring earlier than he wanted to. But he believed in doing what was right, and he stood up for that.”

After his retirement, Edward and Betty bought vacation homes in Long Boat Key, Fla., and in Colorado Springs, Colo., and traveled between them and Wichita.

They also traveled the world.

Mr. Burns liked to golf.

“He had a favorite saying,” said Bill Oliver, spouse of Mary Lynn Oliver. “How sweet it is. We played a lot of golf together, and every time he made a long putt he would say, ‘How sweet it is.’ ”

Betty Burns died in 2005.

Services are 10 a.m. Thursday at St. James Episcopal Church at 3750 E. Douglas. Downing and Lahey Mortuary East is handling arrangements.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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