Of all the titles and awards that Palm Beach attorney, entrepreneur and philanthropist Brian P. Burns has amassed over the years, the one that perhaps he wears most proudly is that of grandson of a poor immigrant from County Kerry, Ireland.
On American Free Enterprise Day at Palm Beach Atlantic University, Burns told the hundreds of guests gathered in the Rubin Arena the story of his family’s progress, considered by many to be a true American success story.
“People that know me well will tell you that I am quite reluctant to speak about myself. On the other hand, I am always happy to talk about my father and my family,” said Burns, who is chairman of San Francisco-based BF Enterprises Inc. and who was honored Thursday as the 2012 recipient of the University’s prestigious American Free Enterprise medal.
Also honored on Thursday were two companion medalists: Connie Cooper Shepherd, senior vice president of North America Channel Business Development for the Starbucks Company and Donald K. DeWoody Jr., principal of WGCompass Realty Companies.
Burns spoke about his grandfather, who fled poverty in Ireland in 1892 and settled in Boston. When an injury left his grandfather unable to work, Burns said that his then 11-year-old father put his education on hold to help support the family.
His father’s intellect, which had allowed him to skip three grades before he was 12, later caught the attention of a local pastor, who helped him finish his education and attend Boston College, Burns said.
“Dad literally feasted on what the Jesuit education offered him, while continuing to work both before and after school to support his family,” Burns said.
Burns said his father later attended Harvard Law School and became the youngest professor in the school’s history. He then served as a judge until Joseph P. Kennedy selected him to become the first General Counsel to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C., Burns said.
Some time later, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst invited him to become his personal attorney. “With seven children, Dad decided to leave government service to represent Mr. Hearst and other nationally important clients, such as CBS, on the west and east coasts,” he said.
Burns said that before his father’s death at age 56, he encouraged him and his siblings “to believe and get the inspiration that this great country would provide infinite opportunities.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, Burns also attended Harvard Law School. He became a partner in several leading law firms in San Francisco, and he served as former chairman and chief executive officer of Boothe Financial Corp. and of Robert Half International, Inc.
Burns has had a distinguished career as a practicing attorney. His broad range of business experience has led to his election or appointment to the boards of major corporations, as well as professional, governmental and charitable organizations across the United States as well as in Ireland.
While working as chairman of the finance committee for Kellogg’s, Burns visited South Africa during the height of apartheid. He spent several days in Soweto meeting with black South Africans discussing the future of their country, he said.
Afterward, he recommended that his company stay in South Africa and fight apartheid. “At that time that was a very unpopular decision,” Burns recalled, although later the company received praise for the move.
“This experience showed me indelibly that many times in business we are reminded of and have a chance to proclaim one of our greatest truths … that all men are created equal.”
To help remind PBA students of this, Burns left each one of them a keepsake —a pocket-sized copy of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
“I think this is entirely fitting under this great occasion,” Burns said.
Burns was introduced by former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, whose senatorial papers are archived at PBA.
In his remarks, Sen. LeMieux noted that Burns and his wife, Eileen, are the second married couple to receive PBA’s highest awards, the American Free Enterprise medal and the Women of Distinction Award. Mrs. Burns received the award in 2011.
Also during the program, PBA President William M.B. Fleming Jr. read a letter from Michael Collins, ambassador of Ireland to the U.S., in which Collins congratulated Burns on his award. Burns has been involved in the peace process in Ireland for nearly 30 years, and he has acquired the largest collection of Irish art outside of that country.
Last year’s medalist, H. Wayne Huizenga Jr., read a passage from the Declaration of Independence, and Palm Beach Mayor Gail Coniglio, a former companion medalist, led the Pledge of Allegiance.
This year’s companion medalists said they were honored to be chosen. “It’s an incredible honor to be a recipient at this spectacular event, and I’m proud and privileged to be a part of it,” DeWoody said.
“It’s very humbling and reenergizing and makes me think of all the things I should and could do versus the things that I’ve done,” Shepherd said. “It makes me want to do more and give back.”