CONCORD, N.H. — Ray Burton, New Hampshire’s longest-serving member of the Executive Council and tireless advocate for the North Country who kept a rigorous travel schedule in the sprawling district, died Tuesday. He was 74.
His spokesman, B.J. Perry, said Burton, who was suffering from kidney cancer, died shortly before 2 a.m. at his home in Bath, surrounded by friends.
Burton, who announced in February that he was undergoing treatment for the cancer, said on Oct. 26 that he wouldn’t be seeking another term in office.
Several hundred people paid tribute to him in a ceremony at Bretton Woods on Nov. 1. Burton rode with Gov. Maggie Hassan from the Mount Washington Hotel in his “parade car,” a 1975 yellow Oldsmobile Delta 88, to the ceremony, where the Mount Washington overlook was dedicated in his honor. Responding to praise from U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen, Burton defaulted to his advocate role and quipped: “Anyone else from the congressional delegation here I can lobby today?”
“For the people Ray represented, he was more than an Executive Councilor or county commissioner – he was a member of the family,” Hassan said in a statement Tuesday. “If a challenge or problem ever arose, you could call Ray Burton and he would do everything in his power to help. If a business, a student, a community leader was being honored, Ray Burton would be the first to applaud. If there was a parade, a pot luck dinner, a public meeting, you knew that Ray Burton would be there.”
Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern said the state and North Country are stronger because of Burton’s work and devotion, “and he has left a model of service that will live on in the State House he served in for decades.”
Earlier this year, Burton focused on helping people from his home and connected to the council meetings in Concord electronically. He assured constituents, “Ray Burton will be back to 100 percent before you know it, passing out business cards and combs! I am forever humbly at your service.”
A Republican, Burton was first elected to the council in 1977. Aside from a brief time in 1980, he was re-elected every two years since then. The five-member council approves state contracts and nominations.
Beth Funicella ran against Burton in 2010 and 2012. When she saw him two months ago, he encouraged her to run again.
“That’s the kind of person he was,” she said. “He encouraged people coming up. He was pretty nonpartisan about that. His main goal was to serve the public.
“He had a lot of admirers and I was one of them,” she said.
Burton received numerous awards for his dedication to North Country causes. A bridge in Bath and a Southern New Hampshire Services’ building in North Woodstock have been named in his honor. He served on many boards and organizations involving education, the arts, business economic development and conservation. If a bridge or road project developed in the north, chances are he helped make it happen.
Burton’s popularity was strong enough to survive calls for his resignation in 2005, after it was discovered his top aide was a convicted child sex offender with a lengthy record. He defied pressure to step down from officials as high up as then-Gov. John Lynch and the state’s congressional delegation, saying there was still too much work to be done in his district.
“I was trying to help somebody who needed some help and I got burned by it,” Burton said.
Many people came to his defense. “If we lose Ray Burton, we will become the portion of New Hampshire that time has forgotten,” former state Rep. Brien Ward of Littleton said at the time. Burton won re-election.
Born in Burlington, Vt., Burton graduated from Plymouth State College and worked as a teaching principal in the Andover and Warren school districts. He served as Sergeant at Arms for the state House of Representatives and the state Senate from 1967-1968.
As a member of the Executive Council, he was a common sight through the years at numerous North Country functions.