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 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 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.