“A very cheerful, uplifting person with a heart of gold:” Paul Burns dies at 72

Burns, a longtime W&L Facilities staff member and Army veteran, died from COVID-19.


Burns reads a Veterans Day prayer at the annual Veterans Day event on campus. Photo courtesy of The Columns.

Shauna Muckle

Paul Burns, director of environmental health and safety at Washington and Lee, died Sept. 19,  2021 due to COVID-19 complications. He was 72 years old.

Burns, who began working at the university in 2001, played a major role in ensuring that facilities were environmentally and health compliant and secure from fire hazards. 

He cared deeply about creating a safe environment for faculty and students in his 20 years at Washington  and Lee, his colleagues said.

“He touched everybody’s life across the university in one way or another,” said Tom Kalasky, executive director of University Facilities.

Burns’ colleagues said they remember his constant positivity and kindness.

“He was just a very cheerful, uplifting person with a heart of gold,” Fire Safety Systems

Inspector  Mark  Fontenot  said.  “I  don’t  think I ever spoke to him and he didn’t say he was wonderful.”

Burns was also generous with his time and quick to prioritize the needs of others, his

colleagues said.

“Paul was always willing to do whatever he could do to help,” Kalasky said. “If that meant that it was 7 o’clock at night and you needed help with something, he’d say, ‘Alright, I’m leaving Covington now. I’ll be there in 45 minutes.’”

Burns served 42 years in the military. He organized annual Veterans Day events on campus,  connecting veterans from Washington and Lee with one another and reminding the community about the importance of honoring those who served.

During his time in the military, Burns led an infantry squad and served as a medic, an operations sergeant and a chaplain. He served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and was awarded a Bronze Star.

Burns was also a pastor in his hometown of Covington. He brought a pastor’s spirituality and  sense of compassion to work, his colleagues said.

“When things would happen or people would have issues personally, he would stop right there and he would gather you and he would pray with you,” Director of Business Operations Karen Paulk said. “It was almost like having our own little chaplain.”

Burns had his fair share of quirks that his colleagues remember fondly. He began each morning with a cup of hazelnut coffee and six hazelnut creamers.

“He’d line them up in a row,” Paulk  said. “There were more additives than coffee, I’ll 

put it that way.” 

He was also known for his love of classic cars and his collection of Corvettes in particular.

“When you’re in Covington and drive by his house, you know it’s his house,” Paulk said.

A funeral service was held for Burns Sept. 24 at Edgemont Presbyterian Church in Covington.