Paul John Burnsky, of Rockville, Maryland, passed away on Sunday, March 29, 2020 at 98 years of age. After a long life well-lived, he died peacefully with his son, P.J., and daughter-in-law, Donna, by his side.
Paul was born in April of 1921 in Throop, Pennsylvania to John and Anastasia Burinski.
As a young child Paul thought that men only lived to be 35 years old, having grown up in a mining town, it seemed that only women were able to live to an old age. Little did he know that he would live for close to a century. The only child in his family who graduated from high school, he left Pennsylvania in 1939 to attend the Academy of Aeronautics in New York in order to become a pilot. One can imagine how fanciful this dream appeared to a family of hard-working miners, but his father gave him his World War I bonus of $1,400 so that Paul could go to the Academy. Ever the pilot, it was at this time Paul changed his name to Burnsky, as in “Burn-the-Sky”.
After graduating, Paul got a job with the Glenn L. Martin Company building the B-26 Marauder in Middle River, Maryland. In 1941, when he was working during the day and taking night classes in hydrodynamics at John Hopkins, the attack on Pearl Harbor shook our nation. Paul received a telegram from the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics asking if he’d be an instructor at the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Chicago. It was while Paul was living in Chicago that he met the love of his life, Marian Smith. After joining the Navy to serve his country in World War II, he and Marian married while he was at the Flight Test Naval Air Station in Norfolk, VA. After the war, he worked for Pennsylvania Central Airlines and Capital Airlines (predecessors to United Airlines) as a lead mechanic. He joined the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) Lodge 1487 in Chicago in 1946 and there began Paul’s tireless commitment to worker’s rights.
One of Paul’s first assignments for the IAM in Chicago in the 1950’s was to expose the Communists that had infiltrated IAM tool and die manufacturing companies that produced critical components for the military. Their goal was to sabotage basic parts for premature failure. His effort was dangerously contentious, however, a success.
After serving 20 years as a Grand Lodge Representative for the union in Chicago and Washington D.C. Paul was elected the President of the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department in 1971 and retired in 1993. During his 22 years as President, Paul grew the MTD to embrace 22 affiliated unions representing over 500,000 private sector and federal workers in an array of skilled trades in space research centers, shipyards, nuclear power plants and related operations, petrochemical plants and non-ferrous mining and processing facilities.
In 1972, the Nixon administration offered Burnsky the directorship of the Peace Corp. After deliberating and consulting with many people, he turned the offer down siting that the Peace Corp would get bogged down in bureaucratic infighting and fall under the new Vista program that Nixon proposed. It was a wise choice at that time because the Peace Corp did end up somewhat dysfunctional through the 70s, cycling through several directors within several years.
In the 50 years that Paul was a leader in the labor movement, he spearheaded significant reforms and negotiations. Throughout his career he presented to Congress, served on the Department of Defense Wage Committee, the President of the United States Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, Federal Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health, The Federal Prevailing Wage Advisory Committee and the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.
Of the many milestones in Burnsky’s career, his successful fight for compensating shipyard workers and their families for the ravages of asbestos exposure is outstanding. His team negotiated a $3 million settlement with the Navy for the shipbuilders that succumbed to asbestosis or mesothelioma at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. He won a similar $1.4 million settlement at the naval yard in Norfolk. These negotiations saved many lives.
On March 30, 1981, Burnsky was just yards away from President Ronald Reagan during the assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr. After Reagan addressed a luncheon to the AFL –CIO at the The Washington Hilton, Burnsky was part of a small waiting crowd outside near the presidential limousine. He witnessed the episode and recalled the rapid gunfire and chaos. He is in the background in the video of that tragic afternoon.
As much as he loved being in the middle of the action during his working hours, he never felt as relaxed as when he was spending time in the summer at Fishers Lake in Three Rivers, Michigan. There with extended family enjoying boating, fishing, bonfires and a “shot and a beer”, is where many special memories were created. And every Sunday you could always find him playing golf with his “SMASH” group, something he enjoyed and at which he became extremely good.
Paul leaves behind his children: Paula (Bruce) Behrens, of Bradenton, Florida, Gregory Burnsky, of Three Rivers, Michigan, Madeline (David) Macdonald of Silver Spring, Maryland, Paul (Donna) Burnsky of Olney, Maryland and Marlene Burnsky of Reno, Nevada; grandchildren: Marissa (Ryan) Downs of Appleton, Wisconsin, Paul (Jaclyn) Burnsky of Ashton, Maryland, Brie-Ann (Aaron) Muller of Hinsdale, Illinois, Ryan (Sarah) Burnsky of Brookeville, Maryland, and Jon Burnsky of Olney, Maryland; and great-grandchildren Elle, Scarlett and Margot Downs, Colton, Chase and Addison Burnsky, Ava and Luke Muller, and Reagan and Brady Burnsky and many loving nephews and nieces. Paul was preceded in death by his wife Marian.
An inspiration to so many, Paul will be missed greatly: his jokes, advice, sayings, and, of course, his cigars.
A private internment date is yet to be determined.
Paul’s family would like to thank the caregivers and nurses from Visiting Angels, Home Instead, Modestine Nsonga, Montgomery Hospice and Alfred House Eldercare for the compassionate attention they gave “Mr. B” over the past few years.
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