What I learned from Ray Burton

He knew that politics was a personal, not ideological, business and that power should derive from the people

A trip to the attic to gather up the Christmas decorations brought my attention to a box of personal mementos. Among them was a 30-year-old note from Executive Councilor Ray Burton, who passed away last month. He was congratulating me on some minor achievement and saying how much he was looking forward to my forthcoming internship. Who would have thought three decades later I’d have the honor of being his junior partner as the North Country’s state senator?

I feel his absence and the burden of carrying on our work alone. Every turn offers a reminder, and so many people share their “Ray Burton” stories with me. It got me thinking about the lessons that Ray taught me as a young college intern and inspires me as middle-aged state senator.

Ray knew that politics was a personal, not ideological, business and that power should derive from the people. Issues change, but personal relationships endure, and they are the key to success and happiness. To him, every encounter bore the seeds of a potential friendship.

He was quick to congratulate and never – ever – missed a chance to console. It was there where he left his greatest mark. Everyone loves a winner, but Ray made it his mission to be the lonely voice of encouragement during our darkest moments. And here in the North Country, where life can be as tough as any country music song, we’ve all been there.

It is no wonder, at Ray’s own lowest point, when the top political leaders asked him to resign, his constituents rallied behind him. But he didn’t rub it in or hold a grudge; he just smiled knowing full well that victory wrapped in graciousness was the best revenge.

Behind his folksy persona, Ray had a keen political sense and ability to cut a deal to help his North Country. He was practical, with his hand always outstretched for any service or dollar that could benefit our beleaguered region and any other politician who would aid his work. Ray was famous for his bipartisan approach and not afraid to be the last remaining liberal “Walter Peterson” Republican. But more than anything, he knew, as LBJ used to say, “Power is where power goes” and power goes to politicians who are in the middle and the balance of power.

Most politicians see their role in ideological terms, but not in moving a specific agenda of items forward. Ray was famous for his lists, and when he had a governor’s ear or if a governor needed his vote, he referred back to his list. His list always included projects and people he wanted appointed to different government posts.

For four decades, Ray Burton regularly barnstormed his sprawling district like a one-man variety show, bringing relevance to the seemingly ridiculous. I recall one Boston Post cane dedication where he went from presenting a state seal proclamation to the piano to play a tune.

Ray loved taking to the road in his vehicle, known as “Car 1,” or one of his antique cars and touring the North Country. They were long days but even when he was sick, he seemed to be rejuvenated by the rhythm of the road and the warmth of the people that he met.

The bottom line is that Ray was just fun to be around with, a quick wit, a twinkle in the eye and engaging joke or little story. He was a larger-than-life character, who just loved life and had an amazing empathy and optimism.

Ray Burton’s lasting legacy can’t be found in policies or programs, but rather in people. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Jeff Woodburn of Dalton represents District 1 in the New Hampshire Senate.