As Boston prepared for a second year of court-ordered busing in 1975, Doris Davis of Roslindale High School’s biracial council praised headmaster Don Burgess and the steps he took to ensure student safety.
“The principal’s working hard,” Davis, whose two nephews attended the school, told the Globe.
He was “the kind of guy that if he sees a problem with your kids, he’ll call you,’’ she added. “He doesn’t just send those students to the bus. He takes them out there.”
Dr. Burgess, a former Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association president whose teaching and coaching career spanned two decades, died Jan. 21 in Naples, Fla., from complications of surgery. He was 86 and divided his time between Naples and Milton.
Known for accepting and overcoming challenges, Dr. Burgess was the last headmaster at Roslindale High, which closed in 1976 and merged with West Roxbury, and the first headmaster at the then-new West Roxbury High. In 1978, he became District 3 community superintendent in Boston.
“Don saw the big picture,” said Don Pellegrini, a former assistant headmaster at West Roxbury High who succeeded Dr. Burgess as headmaster. “But he also realized if you didn’t take care of the little things, the big picture would never occur.”
Bob Glennon, a former head track coach at three area high schools who taught science at West Roxbury High, said Dr. Burgess was “able to listen to others while calmly working through a problem. But he always let you know he was in charge, and he always had his students and athletes in mind.”
Dr. Burgess was assistant headmaster, math department chair, and assistant football coach at Boston English High before becoming Roslindale High’s headmaster. He previously taught math and coached at Whitman-Hanson Regional High, Scituate High, and Boston Technical High.
At Tech, he was head track coach of several powerhouse championship teams and had been assistant football coach.
In February 1968, after Tech concluded its third straight undefeated season against city schools with its third consecutive Boston Regimental Track & Field championship at Commonwealth Armory, Dr. Burgess noted that his team had practiced in school corridors.
And while the marble floors were “bad for the feet,” the school was big, which meant “long corridors, and long corridors mean a long straightaway,” he said.
As assistant football coach, he helped mastermind a 14-6 victory against previously unbeaten North Quincy High in 1968, plucking senior Chris Kerins from the cross-country team and suggesting that Tech run a ball-control offense to eat up the clock.
Kerins, who ran the second half kickoff back for an 85-yard touchdown, recalled that Dr. Burgess “was always thinking of ways to get better and he was extremely committed. He said if you believe in yourself, there’s not much you can’t do.”
A son of Clifford Burgess, a Brookline police officer, and the former Teresa O’Leary, Donald Burgess graduated from Boston College High and Boston College. He received a master’s from Boston State College and a doctorate at BC.
He married Irene Keenan in 1958 and the couple were living in Plymouth when he passed the exam to teach mathematics in Boston’s school system. In 1964, they moved to Milton, where he was a chairman of the town’s School Committee.
There was a time, however, when Dr. Burgess contemplated a different line of work. He had taken a leave of absence from Whitman-Hanson to work for the National Security Agency in Washington, D.C., where he learned code-breaking and how to speak Russian.
His family said that his love of teaching and coaching, and a nostalgic summertime stint playing semi-pro football, brought him back to Whitman-Hanson and his original career path.
In 1974, The New York Times reported that as Roslindale headmaster, Dr. Burgess had “created an orderly environment in which the students are treated with respect,” and added that “discipline is swift and just.”
Before his first year as headmaster at the new West Roxbury High, Dr. Burgess spent the summer with his staff working out logistics, including scheduling and moving materials from Roslindale High.
“My goals for students and myself haven’t changed,” he told the Globe in 1976. “But now I have a facility I can work with. It’s all a question of deciding what you can do for the kids that are there.”
His Boston experience led to stints observing schools in Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio, on behalf of the US Department of Justice. He was also interviewed by Walter Cronkite during the early, tumultuous days of busing in Boston.
In 1976, the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration honored him with a Paul Revere Bowl as Outstanding Public Administrator.
From 1982 to 1992, Dr. Burgess was superintendent of schools in Walpole.
“Don made a good school system even better,” said Tom Cibotti, who succeeded him. “He was incredibly knowledgeable in curriculum and exceptional in dealing with various committees. His opinions were based on fact and he brought people together.”
At a funeral Mass in late January, his son Phillip of Boston said in a eulogy that Dr. Burgess was “a fighter. He had endured numerous physical challenges since childhood. He never complained and plowed right through it.”
Those challenges had included several leg surgeries, a pacemaker, and losing a kidney to cancer.
Phillip marveled at how his father once worked three jobs — as a schoolteacher, as a coach, and as a calculus instructor at Northeastern University — leaving the house at 6 a.m. and returning at 9 p.m.
Dr. Burgess, a director at the Walpole Co-operative Bank at the time of his death, was an inductee to the Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
In addition to his wife, Irene, and his son Phillip, Dr. Burgess leaves a daughter, Martha Bennett of Boston; three other sons, John of New York City, Clifford of Greenville, S.C., and Peter of Miami; two brothers, Edward of Ludlow and Richard of Kingston; and 12 grandchildren.
“Don was a real gentleman, smart and fair with a dry sense of humor,” recalled Freddy Ahern, a tailback on Boston Tech’s 1968 football team who went on to a professional hockey career. “He’d rib you and encourage you, and you knew he really enjoyed what he did.”
Irene Burgess admired her husband’s honesty.
“What you saw was what you got, and he’d be the first to tell you what he thought,” she said. “In the time he’s been retired, all we did was laugh. That’s how we were. We truly enjoyed one another.”Marvin Pave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.