He could someday go down in local lore as one of the most successful Southwest Connecticut residents in history - a lifelong patriot who served his country in positions of which others can only dream.
So why is it so few people today have heard of the late retired Maj. Robert Burnett, a longtime Oxford man who held a storied career in the Marine Corps that included two tremendously high-profile assignments as a helicopter pilot of Chopper One for two U.S. presidents?
The relative obscurity of Burnett - a former Oxford resident who died suddenly on Nov. 5 at age 61 - may be attributed to the very qualities that made him a great American servant who seemingly earned the respect of just about everyone who knew him, including former President Ronald Reagan: Burnett was a humble gentleman of southern upbringing who considered his talents a calling for which he need not brag.
There were, for sure, many aspects of the job Burnett simply could not discuss, not even with his family. But even if he could, Burnett probably wouldn’t because that just wasn’t his way, says his teenage daughter, Shelby Burnett of Oxford.
“He worked behind the scenes a lot of the time and wasn’t always appreciated as much as he should have been, but he didn’t mind,” Shelby recalled. “He was a proud military man and enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers. And I don’t know what greater sacrifice you make for your nation than fighting for it.”
Although Burnett, like so many others who serve their country, was not always appreciated the way he probably should have been, he made enough of an impression on former President Reagan to receive a personalized letter of thanks from the commander in chief. The letter, which is attached this article in its entirety, reads:
“Dear Bobby: Anyone who is truly devoted to public service is unlikely to think of himself or herself as indispensable, but, if that word applies to anyone I’ve encountered these past eight years, it’s the staff of the White House Military Office and support units. The range of duties you perform and the all-hours demands on our skills and experience are truly remarkable. Whatever the job and the time frame, you’re always ready and you’ve always come through.”
The letter goes on to state that Burnett “give(s) witness to a proud heritage, and you add to it immeasurably.”
“I never leave home without you, and the communications facilities you maintain and continually upgrade have given me virtually instant access to any post or person I must meet throughout the globe,” Reagan states in the letter. “You supply a margin of confidence that makes the whole Free World breathe easier.”
It ends, “Thank you for all you’ve done. You make your countrymen, and this countryman of yours, very, very proud indeed. God Bless you, and God Bless America. Sincerely – Ronald Reagan”
The letter is one of many pieces of priceless memorabilia that Shelby Burnett has picked up from the home her father was staying in near Quantico, Va., when he died of an apparent heart attack while attending a funeral service for a friend. Burnett left behind so much, including two adult sons, two step sons, his daughter and a lifetime of memories of an uncanny patriotic life.
Shelby Burnett is proud of her father, who served in the Marine Corps for 20 years before retiring in 1997. He moved to Connecticut with his former wife and Shelby when he took a job at Sikorsky in Stratford where he was a test pilot of military aircraft for 12 years. (See his obituary attached, along with photos of numerous pieces of memorabilia he left behind.)
And while she is thankful for his accomplishments, Shelby is more prone to saying he was simply a great father.
“He didn’t get all the experiences he would have wanted as a kid, so he made sure that I got all of the experiences I could,” said Shelby, who graduated from last year and is now attending college in Long Island. She is undecided on a future career.
She says her father was a typical “soccer dad,” who went to all of the games and cheered on the sidelines while joking with children and parents in between plays. He would attend her swim meets and take down swim times and statistics for competitors.
He would do it all with a smile on his face, while calling ladies “ma'am” and men “sir.”
“He was a consummate southern gentleman,” said longtime family friend Madalene Taggart. “He was a wonderful man who was a very proud father.”
She believes he is still proud of his daughter, who was a volunteer in the Oxford Junior Ambulance Corps before going back to college. And Shelby wants to carry his torch through another generation.
“He makes me very proud,” Shelby said. “Looking at his memorabilia makes me feel like I have to do something more, like I need to contribute to something more. I hate to sound cliché, but I feel like I need to find a way to contribute to something bigger than myself.”
Just like her father.