Robert Burns

Robert Burns

ALTAMONT — Robert Burns did not know the words to many songs but he knew the beat to them all. If there was a dance anywhere in Altamont, he would buy a ticket and be the first to arrive and, more often than not, he would be the last to leave.

He hung up his dancing shoes for the last time days before he died. Mr. Burns suffered a heart attack on Aug. 25, his niece said, and died on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, at his home at 142 Main Street in the village. He was 85.

He was among friends, the other residents of the group home run by the Center for Disability Services, in the place he called home for the last 37 years.

“He was very special in my heart,” said his niece, Virginia Giguere, who lives in West Chazy, N.Y.

Mr. Burns was born in East Greenbush, she said, the son of Thomas Burns, who worked on riverboats, and Minnie VanBuren, a homemaker.

“His father left the family when Uncle Bobby and my mother were young,” said Ms. Giguere. Because Ms. VanBuren had so many children to care for and because Mr. Burns had special needs, she placed him in the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, Ms. Giguere said. “That was a sad chapter; it was a bad experience for him,” said Ms. Giguere. “Life was not good at Willowbrook.”

She went on, “When they closed it down, he was sent to Altamont…That was a good change.”

“In 1973, the State of New York embarked on a new program and Bob was one of the first residents to benefit from this program,” said Rosemary Caruso who, with her husband, James, lives across the street from the group home in Altamont and knew Mr. Burns well. “Before Bob moved into 142 Main Street, the building was used as a convent for Dominican Sisters who served St. Lucy’s Church for many years. As their numbers dwindled, they no longer needed such a large home and moved into new, smaller quarters. Their move opened the building at just the right time. Bob and several others moved into their new residence, which was called ‘Helderberg House.’

“Helderberg House has changed very little since it first started as a residence for adults with disabilities. Unlike many similar residences, this one was not ‘placed in Altamont’; it was brought in by many encouraging and caring residents. The community approval was beneficial for residents like Bob because there were always people to work with him to make life comfortable.”

“The people in Altamont were good to him,” said Ms. Giguere. “He liked going to the dances and to the fair. They took good care of him. They were just fantastic with him. Every time I went to visit, he was excited and happy.”

She concluded, “He was a very outgoing and happy person.”

Mrs. Caruso explained Mr. Burns’s two appellations. “Bob earned the nickname ‘Dancing Bob’ because of all of the dancing he did at parties and dances,” she said. “However, he had another nickname that he may have proclaimed for himself — ‘The Mayor of Altamont.’ No, he was not an elected official, but Bob knew everything going on in the village and was sure to announce that news to everyone he saw.”

She also said, “During the days that Bob rode the bus to his workshop, he would announce to everyone, ‘Don’t forget, there is a dance at the firehouse, or St. Lucy’s, or St. John’s. Cost is $10  per person. Dinner will be first and the dance after!’”

Mrs. Caruso went on, “Bob was also well known at Stewart’s. He liked his coffee and could be found sitting in one of the booths, drinking coffee and chatting with the customers. The Altamont Fair was another love of his and he went every year, including this year when he was transported in his wheelchair.”

A Catholic, Mr. Burns was a member of St. Lucy’s Church in Altamont.  “I can recall socials at the parish center,” said Mrs. Caruso, “where the music would stop and Bob would stay on the dance floor and continue to dance…He’d just move with the music.”

Although Mr. Burns continued to attend St. Lucy’s, he also went to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Altamont, said Mrs. Caruso. “He enjoyed the socials after services there,” she said. “He loved to drink coffee.”

“Our girls grew up knowing the people across the street,” said Mrs. Caruso. “Our youngest daughter, Cindy, is now a manager of a group home….Bob’s been ill and my Cindy has let me know how he was doing. He died at home.”

Over 50 people attended a Mass of Christian Burial for him at St. Lucy’s Church on Friday, Sept. 6, Mrs. Caruso said, and they applauded when one of Mr. Burns’s housemates talked about how he liked dancing, and coffee, and was called ‘The Mayor of Altamont.’ A reception following the burial was held at St. John’s.

Mrs. Caruso concluded, “Thirty-seven years after he arrived, our friend and neighbor, ‘Dancing Bob Burns,’ has left his community.”

She also said, “He had just a wonderful spirit.”

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Mr. Burns is survived by his siblings, Virginia Spenziero, of Albany, Arthur Mickel, of Albany and Ronald Mickel of Nassau; his niece, Virginia Giguere, of Plattsburgh; his nephew, Paul Miller, of Albany; his great-niece, Mellissa Morrison, of Germany; his great-nephews, Edward Morrison and Shawn Giguere, of Plattsburgh, and Jason Miller, of East Greenbush; and his housemates, friends, and staff at the Center for Disability Services.

His parents, Thomas Burns and Minnie VanBuren, died before him, as did two sisters, Ella Miller and Gloria Mickel, and two brothers, Ralph and Richard Mickel.

Interment was at Prospect Hill Cemetery in Valatie. Arrangements were by the Fredendall Funeral Home of Altamont, and online condolences may be made at www.fredendallfuneralhome.com.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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