Vol. 8, No. 9
March 2-8, 2000
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Rob Burnett: 1948-2000
by Sandra Martin

Walk the paths of Robert Paul Burnett’s life, and you’ll tred the many-traveled highways of America’s 20th century. So the stories shared at his Feb. 24 memorial services — celebrated first at 228-year-old Christ Church on Broomes Island Road and then at Calvert Homestead, where Rob and his wife Barbara lived for 20 years — rose to epic proportions.

As friends and family chronicled Rob’s short 51 years, you saw this “teasing charmer” in vibrant selfhood. If you, too, happened to be born about mid-century, you also recognized every man of our times.

From his all-American boyhood in Lanham to his motor-head teens to early manhood in Vietnam, Rob grew up visiting Southern Maryland, where, said brother Duke Burnett, “our grandfather had a place, Happy Acres, on St. Leonard Creek and we would crab and swim and run in the woods like boys do.”
Rob left Eden with the Marines for Chu Lai in Vietnam.

By the time Rob’s number had come up in 1969, Duke recalled, “this country had seen enough body bags come home that they were getting tired of war.”

Why did he go, brother asked dying brother, when “there were lots of ways not to go?”

“His answer gave the measure of the man. ‘It was the right thing to do.’”

As friend and fellow Vietnam vet Bill McHale stepped forward to salute his fallen brother in arms, two delta-winged military jets soared overhead; a white peacock feather drifted in the breeze.

Back from the war, Rob turned his energies to good times.

“We shared interest in tangible intangibles like the night sky. He was a person who could see the sunlight in the falling rain,” said longtime friend Bougie Criswell.

By the late ’70s, Rob had found the love of his life, Barbara, and with her, he lived out that decade’s American Dream. They went back to the country.

They’d been seeking for their homestead when, driving to the St. Mary’s Oyster Festival, they found it on Sixes Road.

“We were the third backup contract,” remembered Barbara, his wife of 22 years. “When all the others fell through, we knew it was meant to be.”

The old Lyle Simmons place had been abandoned. It was a wreck. “The coldest place I ever saw. The wind ran right through it,” remembers McHale.

But in Rob, a carpenter by trade, the drafty old house met its match. He sawed and planted and sowed, creating the Calvert Homestead where he and Barbara prospered.

“The happiest and best time of his life came when he was doing all the work on the house that became Calvert Homestead,” said his brother.

Rob and Barbara created their own Eden, a farm of flowers and herbs where Robbie could set his hand to growing eucalyptus or odd willows and Barbara could dry his flowers and weave them into art. The Burnetts became famous for wreaths and tobacco sticks hung with flowers and for Rob’s brooms, made by hand from his own crop of broom straw.

They lived happily with “earth and water, among trees and woods and every living thing” until cancer came calling. Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma was diagnosed in September of 1998.

Vet buddies Tom Holland and McHale stepped in, lobbying the Veteran’s Administration until Rob was awarded 100 percent disability benefits. “I took care of it for my brother,” said McHale.
The cancer was attributed to Agent Orange, a chemical sprayed from aircraft in Vietnam to defoliate the jungle and reveal the enemy.

Over 18 months, sickness and treatment racked Rob’s strong body but not vanquishing his stronger spirit. In July of 1999, he endured a bone marrow transplant that made him sicker than the cancer.

Rob Burnett fought with comrades on his side. “I never left his side. We fought like two soldiers doing battle,” said Barbara. Over the months, she and Rob “gathered our strengths and made our love stronger so that we can face whatever we have to together.”

They faced the end together on February 18.

“It is with much sorrow in my heart that I have to tell you that my soul mate, my friend, my love, my husband, Rob, has finally gone home with his mother and family who have gone before him. His pain ended today at 5:40pm in our home with me and friends with him most of the day.” Barbara wrote those words in the hours after Rob’s death.

Six days later, her memories expanded:

“At the exact time of his death, when I looked outside for the first time I saw the most beautiful sunset ever” she wrote.

“The sky was aglow of colors. From now on, whenever I see the sunset that we loved to watch together, I will always think of Rob and remember that he waited for the sun to set before he left me so that we could still have it to share together.”

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly