Robert M. Burnett, March 8, 1929-May 6, 2020 - Must Read Alaska
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Robert M. Burnett, March 8, 1929-May 6, 2020

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Two months after his 91st birthday, Robert M. Burnett slipped away from life. He had been in failing health for the last few months, and yet his death was peaceful, overlooking beautiful Lake Chapala in Mexico.

Born in Baker, Oregon, Robert had lived in the town of Chapala, in the state of Jalisco, Mexico for more than 25 years, where he had been involved in many charitable works on behalf of public education and the arts. Although he had lived in Alaska for 15 years, he lived in Chapala longer than anywhere else as an adult.

Robert Burnett in Chile in the 1950s.

Robert graduated from Lincoln High School in Portland and Lewis and Clark College in Lake Oswego, got married, and had two daughters before heading to Chile for a life of adventure for a few years.

Upon his return, he was a journalist for most of his career, writing for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and editing the Culver City Star News. He recalled standing on a jetty after the Great Alaska Earthquake waiting to record the tsunami that was expected to sweep the southern coast of California. Although many perished in Crescent City, California, the wave was barely registered in Los Angeles.

He went on to become the Associated Press Bureau chief in San Diego before he got the itch to go to Alaska.

Robert moved his family to Alaska in the fall of 1969, as he had headed north that summer to mine the Bering Sea for gold. When that venture failed spectacularly, he got a job with the State of Alaska as the public information officer for the Department of Fish and Game and lived in Juneau.

When Gov. Keith Miller ran for his re-election, Robert was his press secretary. Miller, the third governor of Alaska who had taken office when Gov. Walter Hickel was appointed Secretary of the Interior for President Richard Nixon, lost to Gov. Bill Egan, a populist Democrat, who had previously served as Alaska’s first governor.

Robert especially loved working alongside the well-loved filmmaker Amos Berg, and the two of them produced vast amounts of printed and filmed material for the Department of Fish and Game, under Commissioner Wally Noremberg.

Robert was also the editor of the Alaska Blue Book, an encyclopedic reference manual for Alaska officials in the 1970s. After leaving state service, he hand-trolled for salmon in Southeast Alaska, and was the administrator for the Kavilco, the Kasaan Village Corporation, before heading back to Oregon to care for his aging parents.

Robert already had his master’s degree in journalism from UCLA, and a master’s degree in Spanish, but later in life he earned a third master’s degree in archaeology. An archeological site in Oregon, known as the Burnett site, is named for him after he discovered it on his property on a bluff above the Willamette River in 1987. He worked for several years as an archeologist in Oregon.

He moved to Mexico in 1996 and never looked back. In those years, he developed a loving relationship with Carmen Magana, who became his life partner for a period that spanned 20 years. He returned to Alaska for the last time in 2014 and traveled the road system with his daughter, Suzanne Downing, the author of this obituary, assisting her as she campaigned for Gov. Sean Parnell’s reelection.

Robert Burnett and Suzanne Downing at the Alaska State Fair, August, 2014.

Robert was proud of his four children, Rebecca, Suzanne, Peter, and Joseph, who he raised with his first wife Marlys Burnett, formerly of Juneau. And he was also proud of Carmen’s children, Lucy, Mabel, and Siglinda, who he helped raise.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Condolence Ms. Suzanne Downing and the rest of your family. Your father is and was a remarkable man….one we will remember as part of history. Rest In Peace Sir….Thank You!

  • Peace to you, your family and father to have enjoyed life and living with a fullness that few enjoy!!

  • So sorry for your loss Suzanne. Your father was an extraordinary man.

  • Wow. What a legacy. Thank you for sharing a glimpse of your father for us.

  • Sorry for your loss, Suzanne. Your tribute is beautiful.

  • Sounds like an amazing person. My kind thoughts and prayers for your family!

  • Sorry for your loss. By all accounts he was a truly outstanding man and a true Alaskan!!

  • Suzanne,

    I’m sorry for your loss, your father seems to have lived a full and rewarding life, one we would all be proud to have lived. Take care.

  • So sorry for your loss. A wonderful obit and no doubt a wonderful and accomplished gentleman. We will keep you and your loved ones in our thoughts and prayers.

  • Condolences Suzanne. One of my girls once asked me what I wanted her to do with her life. I told her that what I wanted for her was that when she got to the end of the road she would look back and say: I LIVED my life. By your words it seems your father LIVED his life. Which is more than 99% of the world can or will ever do.

  • First, good piece of writing, especially under the circumstances. Second, sorry for your loss, and you and yours will be in our thoughts.

  • Your father’s story is amazing and inspiring. Thank you for sharing and God Bless you during this difficult time.

  • Sorry for your loss. What a wonderful story about your father. We are thankful for him and the inspiration of himself in his daughter.

  • Suzanne,
    Its never easy to lose a loved one. All we can do is reflect on their life accomplishments, and their impact on us. If you recall from time to time on those special memories you’ve had, and pass those along to your own special people, are they truly gone? I don’t think so. Not as long as the memories remain. I hope your broken heart heals itself quickly. I bet he was very proud of you.

  • Very sorry to hear that you lost your father. He sounds like a wonderful and adventurous person. I’m sure he would be extremely proud of the obituary you wrote for him, I’m sure it came with plenty of tears and, I hope, a few smiles. God bless you and your family. I hope you have the opportunity to celebrate his life soon.

  • Coldolences…to you and a salute to a long life well lived. Frank and Jeanne

  • Suzanne, Your father will live in the stories you tell among friends and family. Wonderful to be a part of such rich Alaskan roots.

  • Suzanne, Dan and I will add you to our prayer list. Truly this was an awesome obituary for an obviously awesome man. Now I understand where you inherited some of your amazing talent! Truly you have honored him in the best way–by going out and doing a great service for thousands of us.

  • Sorry to hear of your loss. I have a little better insight into your independent view on so many stories. Keep up the good word.

  • This is one of those great columns that leave me wishing I had been able to meet the person whose story I am reading. Suzanne, Your father must have been such an interesting man to sit and have a conversation with, or enjoy a road trip somewhere in Alaska, Mexico, or anywhere in between.

    Godspeed Mr. Burnett, you leave a lasting legacy through your work and through your children left behind. We wish them peace and comfort in this difficult time, as well as your other close friends and relatives. You will be missed by many, everyday. Your daughter Suzanne is making the world a better place for us here in Alaska, and I am certain your other children are doing equally amazing things for those folks lucky enough to be part of their lives. Rest in peace, sir.

    • Condolences. Wonderful obit. Peace to you and your family.

  • Wonderful tribute, Suzanne. He would be proud. Best to you and your family.

  • Condolences; and thank you for opening your heart to us.

  • Deepest condolences and a fitting tribute to a life well lived and well loved.

  • Suzanne,
    My condolences for your loss.
    Sounds like he had a long adventurous life.
    Always remember the good times spent together.

    Take care, be safe.
    God bless.
    Griz – Alaska

  • What a great life! Such adventure and sense of duty! Can’t wait to read more. Cherish his life, and keep him alive in your writings.

  • my sincere condolences. He was part of our family: families are like that in Mexico and he was an essential part of our lives.

  • Beautiful-Bless You

  • Condolences. He will be watching you from beyond with a smile on his face and pride in his chest!

  • Good read. Sorry for your loss.

  • My deepest sympathies to you and your family. What a remarkable glimpse into your father’s life. Such a blessing you were able to travel to Mexico back in March and visit with him. I know you will always hold him in your heart and fond memories. I will hold you in my heart and prayers.

  • Condolences Suzanne

  • Condolences. We will miss him.

  • Thank you to your Dad for providing Alaska with a Voice of Truth. True Immortality is based on the Legacy you leave behind. On this score your Dad receives a Well Done. May he Rest In Peace.

  • Wow! Quite a life!

    RIP.

  • Suzanne please accept the sincere condolences of the entire Floyd family. You father raised an exemplary daughter. Your kindness, grace and compassion no doubt have much to do with the man that helped shape your life. Prayers for you and yours during this challenging time.

  • Wow, what a fitting obituary of a great man and life well-lived.

  • Suzanne, you are gem. We are blessed to have you. So sorry for your loss.

  • I’m so glad you had an opportunity to visit with your dad. He had a very full life based on his obit. What a wonderful legacy!

  • Sorry for you loss Suzanne, your father had quite a legacy, and sounds like he instilled a lot of values in you. Thanks for all you do!

  • Thanks so much for sharing. How blessed you were to have him for a father and how blessed he was to have you for a daughter. May your sad moments be covered with thankfulness for all your wonderful memories. Love and prayers as I know a piece of us goes when our parents leave us.

  • I think about my long-gone father and mother every day and expect to for the rest of my life.
    I will never stop missing them and I don’t want to.

  • What a beautiful tribute to an amazing man. These men of your fathers generation ( mine included) were true go getters and did what they needed to do because, they were “go getters”. There was no other choice. I LOVED reading about his ventures and life and loved that he joined you on “the trail.” What a great heritage you have. Keep up the work! Thank you for sharing.

  • Dear Suzanne, One of your father’s greatest legacies is you. May he Rest In Peace knowing that his daughter is serving Alaskans with news that we need to know. Thank you for the finest journalism.

  • Your father sure passed on a legacy of courage and adventure – so sorry for your loss, Suzanne. Prayers for comfort here for you and your family.

  • Condolences. Wishing peace to everyone that loves him during this painful time.

  • Like they say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree Suzanne. We are grateful that you are carrying your father’s tradition of common sense for Alaska. It always sucks to be an orphan at any age. Sorry for your loss, but hasn’t really left you.

  • Condolences. Beautiful obit of a well lived life.

  • It is so difficult to lose a parent but he sounds like he lived a very full life. Our condolences.

  • Losing a parent always marks the end of an era in one’s own life. May the great memories of your father and your relationship with him stay with you forever. He obviously had a great zest for life and has had a wonderful influence on you.

    God Bless,

    Doug Ferguson
    Palmer, AK

  • Awesome Obit!
    He was blessed to have you for his daughter!

  • Sorry for you loss, and thank you for sharing the story of his life with us. He was lucky to have you to share it for us, and likewise we are lucky to have it shared with us.

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