Tag Archives: #GrantBurns

The Ghost in the Library


Grant Burns and the Thompson Library Ghost

(see complete re-printed article below)



When I first arrived at Thompson Library, nearly 20 years ago,  Grant and I found ourselves working together over a weekend.  During a lull in activity,  Grant passed the time by introducing me to his friend,  the Library Ghost.

Not one to rattle easily, I scoffed at the idea of a resident supernatural researcher.     But Grant persisted, relating incident after incident which gave at least anecdotal evidence in support of academic inquiry from beyond the Great Beyond.

I remained a staunch skeptic.

Then, a few years later while I was alone in the library working late into the night on a project with a short deadline, I experienced a strange event which I described to Grant at our next meeting over the proverbial water cooler.   Here’s what happened:

As I sat in my office, back to the door, focused on my computer,  the rest of the building in darkness, I was suddenly startled by a very LOUD noise just outside my office door.  It echoed in the silence of the empty building.

More than a little bit concerned, I walked cautiously to the door and froze.   I remained stock-still, peering into the gloom beyond the curtain of “emergency lights” shrouding the front desk.   Was someone out there?

That’s when I spied it.   On the floor.    A book …

In the wall next to my office were built-in oak shelves where we kept a number of books that were used regularly.   One such item was a thick tomb commonly referred to as the Blue Book.  It was the  list of current UM employees (including Flint).

But the book hadn’t merely fallen off the shelf, a near impossibility as the shelves were both deep and strong — and the substantial book had been placed well back from the edge.

No.  It hadn’t simply fallen off the shelf.  It had flown out into the center of the room, landing a good 5 feet from the shelf.

It had landed on its spine — and had flown open.   Not just open;  the pages were turning, as if blown by a stiff wind (or flipped by unseen fingers?).    Had there been a breeze,  perhaps the hair on the back of my neck would not have risen.      However …

After relating the story to Grant the next day, he assured me I had, indeed, finally met the Library Ghost, who no doubt was investigating our current staff listing.  He said this with such absolute conviction that I again experienced that moment of hair feeling quite out of place on the back of my neck.

That happened decades ago.  And yet, I think of it often.  Such was the power of Grant’s incredible ability to tell a story so convincingly that you would believe, even for a moment, that he was telling you about a real and verified entity, the Library Ghost.

And then Grant would smile.  You know the one.  He had his audience in the palm of his hand, and he was quite satisfied.

It was well known among his co-workers,  family and  friends that Grant enjoyed doing research.   It wasn’t “just a job” for Grant.   This helping people learn to find answers to their most pressing questions, or even just to satisfy a passing interest,  was what he loved.    It was his passion.

Then …        Grant was gone.      And we still miss him.

I have found myself wondering, over the years, if he occasionally visits our library again.   Perhaps he returns to complete some research project he never quite got around to in life?   Or maybe to assist his old friend, the Library Ghost of whom he was so fond of discussing?

At least,  I like to think he does.     I like to think of them, together, searching through the library.    Sharing their favorite books.   Discovering new and amazing facts.

I like to think that, in a place they both loved,  they have each found a kindred spirit.

—  Vera Anderson, Reference Librarian, Thompson Library








Following is the article Grant wrote for the UM-Flint paper long ago.   We re-print it here in full.   We hope you enjoy it as much as  we did, those of us who knew Grant and heard him speak fondly of his friend, the Library Ghost.


The Ghost in the Library

by Grant Burns


Every good library needs a ghost.    We have ours.    Read on….

Saturday closing time rolls around on a pleasant,  early-spring afternoon.    The Thompson Library has been sparsely populated all day; not even the specter of term papers soon due can keep most students from spending the day outside in the sun.

The librarian on duty makes his customary tour of the building after locking the entrance.   He checks each floor, looking down the rows between the stacks,  into the study rooms,  and along the empty study carrels for the stray visitor who may have nodded off and missed the closing announcement.

He takes the stairs to the first floor,  the last stage of his circuit,  and checks the stacks first.   Finding them empty,  he emerges onto the floor of the atrium,  the building’s most striking architectural feature.   Caught up in daily work, he seldom visits this spot;  rather than a part of the library’s general business area,  the atrium is a place for escape,  for meditation,   for reflection on space,  time,  and the eight-page paper due Thursday afternoon.

The atrium, filled with late-afternoon sunlight,  is otherwise empty.   The librarian takes a moment to enjoy the scene:  He stands near the graceful curving glass wall at the north end and surveys the space,  savoring the effects of the light on the stainless steel,  the glass,  and the wood paneling.

The peaceful quiet reassures him that in a violent world,  it is still possible to create a sanctuary where the quotidian hurly-burly does not drown one’s thoughts.   The librarian puts his hands in his pockets and stands at ease.    He hears nothing but his own breathing,  the distant hum of the ventilation system — and the busy rustling of papers.

The Thompson Library ghost has not completed his day’s inquiries.   Or her inquiries.   Since no one here has met this spirit in the flesh,  or in the ectoplasm,  we are unsure to which sex it subscribes.   We know only that our ghost is a busy one,  with a long day’s journey through his researches fading into night.

When the day’s patrons have left their studies to return to the warmth of their friends and families,  the Thompson Library ghost pursues his quest with unrelenting devotion,  flipping through page after page in a feverish search for some unknown,  and perhaps unknowable,  truth.

The first time I heard him as I made the Saturday closing round several years ago,  I was convinced that a preoccupied patron in an obscure spot was leafing frantically through a book or journal.    My careful investigation led only to my doubting my own ears:  I found no one,  but I continued to hear turning pages.

Imagine my relief when other library staffers reported the same observation.   Most recently reference librarian Paul Streby,  a man not given to fanciful conclusions,  discussed our invisible friend with me in a state of some concern.   “Do you think he’ll ever find what he’s looking for?”  he said.

Who is our ethereal patron?   Speculation is only too easy.   The page-rustler could be the restless shade of a long-gone scholar whose lifeline frayed out before he completed the one great work that would have rendered his name immortal.

Could this phantom’s origins go back even further,  to the days when the old Flint Public Library,  built with a Carnegie grant furnished in 1905, stood just down the street from the place the Thompson Library now occupies?   Picture if you will some turn-of-the-century Flint bookman bent on a mission of the most arcane sort, lost in time and space — but at home in the Thompson Library,  convinced that the next page,  or the next,  will yield the truth so long sought.

We wish him well.   We invite him to stop by the reference desk to ask for help,  even if his origins and motives baffle us (a situation we experience with some of our corporeal clients).   In any case,  we know one thing:   In the library,  after hours,  we are never alone.   The rustling of pages proves it.

     *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Grant Burns was

Assistant Director of the Thompson Library

until his death in 2006.

We still feel his presence.



Remembering Grant Burns


Our Own Mark Twain Remembered …

Anniversaries bring to mind warm memories of times gone by,  of people,  places,  and events we have experienced and remember wistfully — and perhaps with a tinge of regret for what was once an important part of our lives, yet is now mere history.

But our history is important to us.   It connects us to our past, our roots.  It carries us forward into our future.    It shapes what we were and what we hope to become.

This month, Thompson Library faces an anniversary of sorts that brings the joy of remembrance along with the deep sadness of loss,

Ten years ago in January 2006,  we lost Grant Burns, the library’s assistant director, and bulwark of our library.


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Grant Burns, 1968 (click to enlarge)

While Grant often harkened back to his “green and white” roots and that other Michigan institution from where he received a BA in social studies in 1969,  he was also a proud graduate of the UM-Ann Arbor, where he was awarded a MA in English in 1973 AND of the UM School of Information where he obtained his M.L.S. in 1976.   He would often reminisce  of his days as a student in Ann Arbor with other librarians who shared some of his memories  of instructors and those lessons learned we now use to the benefit of UM-Flint students.


UM-Flint Library’s inter-mural softball team, “The Bookies.” Circa, summer of 1982. (click to enlarge)

Even though he had roots in another campus and another institution, Grant was dedicated to UM-Flint and the Thompson Library.



Staff of UM-Flint at old location in Mott Memorial Bldg. (click to enlarge)

He served as a librarian on our campus for nearly 30 years,  first as a reference librarian, then serving as Head of Reference for 10 years, and for his last 6 years as the library’s assistant director.     During that time,  the library went through enormous changes, beginning as a small facility located in the former Mott Memorial Building (now part of Mott College), moving to the 5th floor of CROB (the former ClassRoom Office Building — now French Hall) and eventually into the new Thompson Library facility which opened in October 1994.


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Brant Burns, 1994. (click to enlarge)

Grant saw the library move from a print-based information and research center with books, bound journals and vast sections of indexes and abstracts which researchers used heavily to locate materials relevant to their needs, through the introduction of technology in the form of microform and microform reader/printers, to the advent of the computer age — and finally the introduction of the internet and web-based indexes as databases.


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Grant Burns, 2000 (click to enlarge)

During all this time, Grant remained a constant.  With his easy-going manner and calm, thoughtful examination of the needs of the library, the students, faculty research projects, and of our staff, he kept us moving steadily forward.


Grant & Steve Burns (click to enlarge)

All of those who knew Grant were familiar with his many anecdotes and stories which he would frequently share with other librarians, faculty or students that needed some of his folksy wisdom or guidance.  And he was a good story teller!   One of his favorite authors of all time was Mark Twain, and in many respects he carried on in the footsteps of his hero.   He was our own UM-Flint Twain.


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Burns family, 1981. (click to enlarge)

Always at hand when a crisis struck,  able in his introspective and thoughtful way to step back and examine a situation and guide us constantly forward, supporting and encouraging each member of the library team to find ways to better the library and themselves, always willing to go that extra mile to assist a researcher ferret out an obscure bit of useful information, Grant was a fixture of our library whom we  assumed would always be here.

In memory of Grant, we would like to share some of the comments made at his memorial service by those that knew and worked with Grant over the years:

Announcement to Campus

by Chancellor Juan Mestas & Library Director, Robert Houbeck:

Today the University of Michigan-Flint family lost one of its dear colleagues. Grant Burns, assistant library director, collapsed this morning on campus and died at Hurley Medical Center. The cause of death appears to have been heart-related.

Grant received his B.A. from Michigan State. He started his library career as a periodicals clerk and bookbinder at the UM Law Library in 1973. While holding that position he pursued and secured his M.L.S. degree from the School of Library Science at UM-Ann Arbor. He has been with the Flint campus of the University since 1977, serving ably in many capacities: head of library reference services, assistant library director, interim library director, member of the Budget Priorities/Chancellor’s Advisory Committee, to name but a few.

Grant held the rank of full Librarian. He published actively throughout his career, contributing articles to professional journals such as Library Quarterly and Library Journal, as well as occasional columns, as “Uncle Frank’s Diary”, at NewPages.com. He also authored several books, including Librarians in Fiction: A Critical Bibliography, and The Railroad in American Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography.

He was much sought after by his colleagues here at UM-Flint for his writing and editing skills, most recently with the University of Michigan-Flint’s Strategic Plan and the French Hall renovation project documents. In committee service, Grant was a valued barometer: if he didn’t sigh and roll his eyes, one knew the matter under consideration had at least a modicum of common sense – Mark Twain, one of his intellectual mentors, would have approved. We will miss Grant’s ready wit, moral earnestness, and generous readiness to serve. He leaves his wife, Stephanie, and two children, Steven and Andrea. We know that you join us in extending to them heartfelt condolences at their loss.

As details of arrangements are made, the campus community will be notified.

Juan Mestas, Chancellor


Grant’s Memorial Serivce —

Opening Remarks


Robert Houbeck, Director, Thompson Library

Welcome … thank you for coming.

We’re gathered here today to remember & celebrate the life and work of our colleague, Grant Burns.

In conformity to the wishes of Grant’s family, as well as those of the librarians and staff of the Thompson Library, we are holding this ceremony amidst the collection that was, amidst colleagues who were, such a central part of his life …

Clearly, looking around the room, Grant touched many lives … gathered here are only a small portion …

I had the privilege of working with Grant for 15 years. He was a valued colleague, a thorough professional, and I trusted his judgment completely. One of the reasons we got on so well is that, on a personal level, we shared many of the same values: a devotion to family, a love of learning, a commitment to the robust conversation that, ideally, is a university. We both subscribed to the view of philosopher David Hume: that truth springs from argument amongst friends.

I don’t know if we usually got to the truth, but argue we did. I’m going to miss the running political debate in which we engaged for these fifteen years. Before Roger Ailes conceived Hannity & Colmes, we had formed our own McLaughlin Group.

Hard as it is to believe looking out our window, Spring Training down in Florida is getting underway. Grant loved baseball. I’m going to miss his anticipation of a new baseball season, and our ongoing competition to find the best nicknames …

And, during football season, each Monday morning from September through December I’m going to miss that standing question which we would forlornly pose to one another: “What is wrong with the Lions?”

Well, I am confident that Grant is now safely in a place where he can get an answer to that question. Like every lifelong Lions fan, he has lived through his Purgatory and is now enjoying that delightful place where, for every long-suffering Detroit fan, we have just defeated the mighty Cleveland Browns, we are NFL champs, and it is perpetually 1957.


Remarks by Juan Mestas, Chancellor,
at the memorial service of Grant Burns,
Monday, February 20, 2006

This weekend I read a selection of poems by the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado. One, in particular, caught my attention. It is an introspective piece, the poet’s reflection on who he is, how he is. One verse made me stop and read it again. It said, “Soy, en el buen sentido de la palabra, bueno”: “I am, in the good sense of the word, good.”

Why the parenthetical expression? Why would it be necessary to clarify, “in the good sense of the word?” What sense, other than a good one, could “good” have? We know that words are treacherous. They don’t always mean what they say or say what they mean. Just think of what happened to “bad.” In the lips of those natural linguistic insurgents, teenagers, it has come to mean “good,” which puts the question of the meaning of “good” in a different light.

What does that have to do with Grant Burns? Well, Grant understood words. His sense of humor was mostly verbal. His wit, sharp as could be, often carried an ironic twist, even a bit of harmless sarcasm. He liked to play with words and did it very well, because he understood them. He understood that connotations are as significant, and much more fun, than denotations. He understood that words insinuate more than they reveal. He understood that they can lead to a smile or a laugh even in the most serious situations.

Two or three years ago, I was going to make some “important” remarks at the University Theatre, and there was some anticipation about what I would say regarding student housing. The Flint Journal ran a story that day that included brief interviews with campus people. Grant was quoted in the paper as saying something along these lines: “If the Chancellor announces that we’ll have student residences, it’s good because…. If he announces that we won’t have student residences, it’s good because….” That was a spinner’s delight. No matter what I ended up saying, there would be a defensible reason for it. Most people interpreted his remarks as an expression of loyalty. When I read them I smiled, because I could see Grant smiling as he said them. There was loyalty in his words, I am sure, but there was more than that. There was irony. He was mocking the hoopla about the chancellor’s speech. He was making fun of the very interview he was giving. He was using humor to bring us down to earth.

I miss Grant. I miss his wit, his kindness, his wisdom.

He was once a member of the faculty committee that advises me, and his counsel improved my decisions. In meetings, he did not feel compelled to express an opinion on everything, but when he spoke, we listened, because we knew we would learn from his words. He and I argued often about grammar-minutiae, such as whether a comma was necessary or a word should be capitalized. It was a game, a pleasant game – especially for him, because he always won. Almost always, that is. I won once, and that little victory felt as if I had won a gold medal in the Olympics.

I have heard people say they disagreed with Grant on something or other, but I have never met anyone who did not like and respect him. He was a kind and honorable man. He was, in the good sense of the word, good.

We were blessed to have him with us


Remarks by Margaret Leary, Director – Law Library (Ann Arbor)
at the memorial service of Grant Burns,
Monday, February 20, 2006

Dear Grant,

You and I go back a long way, back to 1973 at the Law Library. You were already there, I believe, when I arrived–I a novice manager, you working in bindery prep and going to school. My first memory is that you told me you really needed a small bench to hold a piece of equipment. We spotted one that winter that seemed unused, and appropriated it for your use–only to discover a few months later that it was part of a precious set of teak outdoor furniture that belonged in a courtyard in the lovely Cook Law Quadrangle. Neither of us lost our job over that!

You did your work meticulously, calmly, and with great intelligence and dedication. You took on a large backlog of books that needed repair, and acquired the tools and skills to put them back into working condition. You wrote a very useful memo, as you prepared to leave in 1977 for your first reference librarian job. It’s typed, with not a single error. You advised us that your successor would “have no trouble finding books that need repair; the state reports on level 2 are an especially ripe ground for derelicts.” Your memo advised us both how to build on the position you had created, and how to get along if we decided not to do that.

You left a nearly 20 page manual for your job: a clue that you yearned to write books, and you wrote several terrific ones. You said: “Some publications (notably and notoriously the Italian) come to us with several parts in each issue that must be separated from each other and put with matching parts from other issues before binding. Germany, France, and other countries all send us such stuff.”

You continued: What was clear to me after doing the thing several times may be a fog to a beginner. When working on such an item, have some space for laying out the parts. Avoid balancing parts on your knees, I have found this practice inconvenient when the phone rings.”

You also watched out for our patron relations, and advised what to do when we bound a volume when all the issues were not available. “Write, for example, ‘Issue 17 is out of print and unavailable’, ‘Pages 45-46 damaged and cannot be replaced.’ Don’t say ‘Law Library does not hold no. 3 of this vol.’ That makes it sound to the reader as though we just said, ‘what the hell, let’s send it w/o no. 3.'”

Grant, you went on to positions that took better advantage of your talents than the job at the Law Library, but we’ll forever be proud that you started your career with us. I loved sitting at the table of UM Library Directors with you as my peer, when you were Acting Director here at UM-Flint. You never changed: you remained calm, dedicated to the profession, thoughtful, and with a wicked sense of humor. And then you left, and I had never told you, till now, how much I admire and respect you.


Remarks by Bill Webb, Vice Chancellor
at the memorial service of Grant Burns,
Monday, February 20, 2006

Today, we are here to say good bye to a very dear friend and colleague, to a loving father, and to a caring and devoted husband.

Grant would be very pleased to see all of us here, to know how many folks came to pay their respects, and to say good-bye. But, I also know Grant would have wondered: “What-the-heck is all the fuss about?” Because, Grant never sought attention or the limelight for himself; instead, he left that for others. In fact, if he were standing here, he would urge all of us to move on with our lives, and get back to work.

But today is Grant’s day, a day to appreciate him, a day to remember him; and “yes” Grant, a day to recognize him.

Grant was at his best, and most comfortable, helping and attending to others who were in need, whether a student, a faculty member, a visitor to the library, a colleague, or a family member.

Grant would do anything for anybody, and ask nothing in return. He was one of the most caring, intelligent, and gracious people, I have ever known.

For me, what I will remember most about my dear friend, mentor and confidant was his approach to life: According to Grant, life is about simple pleasures. It’s not about money. It’s not about fame. It’s not about yourself, it’s about others. It’s about helping others and making it a better place for others. It’s about being a caring and responsible father and husband.

Here is a description of the man I knew. Grant was a:

Trusted employee and a caring boss

He was able to laugh at himself, and with others

He multi-tasked, stayed focused, was disciplined, and had one-book-or-article after another published

He shared appropriately those hilariously funny off-color jokes and video clips

He stood up–and for–what he believed in, both as a conscientious objector in the late 1960’s and as a person who opposed the nuclear genie

He was a kind and gentle soul

Although he was in academia, he was grounded in common sense

He cherished Andrea and Steven, and wanted only the best for them

He never missed his daily walk to the B&N bookstore for coffee

He rode his bike on campus at MSU, and

He took walks with Stephanie, often picking up coffee-to-go, and walked to Beaumont Tower to listen to the carillons

I will always value these memories of Grant!

In closing, I would like to quote Alexander Pushkin who wrote:

Never say with grief, “he is no more”, but rather say with thankfulness, “he was”.

So long, Grant – I will miss you!


Remarks by Phyllis Valentine, Head of Library Computer Systems (Ann Arbor)
at the memorial service of Grant Burns,
Monday, February 20, 2006

Grant Burns was a person of great personal character, integrity, convictions, humor, and hope. Whether we were friend, colleague, wife, child, or relative, we each knew Grant as someone who cared for us and who looked after our best interest with tact, understanding, persistence, and occasionally prodding. We all did our best because of his support and encouragement.

I first met Grant in the early 1990s, when the UM-Flint Library was implementing an online system. Because of my role in Library Systems and in that process, I was frequently in Flint. It was clear from the outset that Grant’s role at the library went beyond his official title. Through subtle ways he helped shape the success of that implementation process. He knew the staff’s and the library’s needs and always had suggestions that helped us move beyond the problems we encountered to the critical positive steps forward.

Because of our many email exchanges and coffee breaks together, our discussions broadened beyond talk of systems and libraries to a range of societal concerns and issues…and to cats. Especially cats. Grant loved cats. Stephanie and Grant’s cats have real names and are encouraged in the same way that we were…to be themselves and to live together in peace. One of my last conversations with Grant had to do with the naming of our kitten, Leo, and his new cat, Rufus, and with remembering our elderly cats.

Grant’s ‘Uncle Frank’ columns are masterpieces of witty, thoughtful, compassionate prose. While many of us share the concerns expressed in those columns, few step forward to express them to others so cleverly. Grant cared deeply about the UM-Flint, this library, and society in general, and he put his words and his commitment behind that caring.

At the Library level, Grant was instrumental in advancing the promotion requests for the Flint professional staff. Before I knew it, I was also helping in this process, obtaining reviewers in Ann Arbor. In return, Grant was always there for me as a sounding board and advisor.

Grant’s death is a great loss to us all. I know that I will remember his friendship forever. I am certain that you all will have similar memories. My heart goes out to Stephanie, Andrea, and Steven. I know that you three were his dearest circle and support. I hope that we can all help each other with our loss. I hope also that we will honor Grant by carrying on his great tradition of thoughtful, compassionate action.


Remarks by Bruce Rubenstein, Professor, History Dept
at the memorial service of Grant Burns,
Monday, February 20, 2006

Good afternoon. I’m Bruce Rubenstein, a Professor of History at UM-Flint. I was humbled when Paul Gifford asked me if I would say a few words at this memorial service. There are few of us remaining who predated Grant’s arrival at UM-Flint, and as one of those few I always appreciated that one of the gifts Grant brought over the years was that of institutional history. Grant never wasted anyone’s time trying to reinvent a wheel identical to one that had been tried years earlier and found to be wanting. It was always a comfort for me to enter the library and see Grant’s lanky form striding about or seeing him busily at work at the reference desk – all was right with the world.

I wish to say a few words on behalf of the thousands of my students who have had to do primary source research papers and whom I always sent to Grant for assistance. They constantly reported how caring and patient Grant was, and how he made them feel that there was nothing more important to him than helping them do well. To these students Grant Burns was the UM-Flint library, and future students will be deprived by not having access to his kindly wisdom and advice.

Indeed, Grant made most people with whom he worked feel better. The Editorial Development Chief of McFarland & Co., which published Grant’s latest book on railroads, wrote me saying that Grant was one of their “very good friends, and that we will miss him very much.” High praise from a publisher.

Personally, I always enjoyed stopping and talking with Grant on a wide range of subjects – university events, an article he had written and how much I enjoyed it even though I disagreed with his viewpoint, but most often on baseball, especially when he had his fantasy league team. I recall him bemoaning how poorly he was doing every year, and then laughing when I suggested he become General Manager of the Tigers, so he could advance his lack of evaluating talent to a higher level. I shall miss those moments, as well as that Mark Twain twinkle in his eyes and wistful smile that made you think, quite properly, that he knew something you did not.

Like my students, in many respects Grant was the library to me as well, and I shall miss him greatly, but always be thankful I knew him for as long as I did.


Remarks by Paul Gifford, UM-Flint Archivist/Librarian
at the memorial service of Grant Burns,
Monday, February 20, 2006

I think all of us who worked with Grant felt shocked by his sudden death three days after we returned from the winter break. In that first week we generally break out of our holiday hibernation and start orienting ourselves to the tasks ahead.  We’d been back to work barely four days, when we, instead, found ourselves planning how to get along without Grant.  That planning resulted in this ceremony. As chair of the planning committee, I would like to thank everyone for their work in putting this together:   Laura Friesen-Lynn, Lesa Quade, Paul Streby, and Annie Szuch.

Grant was fond of the expression, variously attributed to Mark Twain, Will Rogers, or Groucho Marx, “I’d never belong to an organization that would have me as a member.” Although that sentiment applies to formal groups, I think that would probably include gatherings of this sort. Grant generally shied away from formal social occasions, and I’m sure that our little speeches and the big picture and the display would all make him a little bit uncomfortable.

But, here we are, just a little more than a month after his death, talking about him, remembering his personal quirks and accomplishments–all those things that make a person. He was all over this building in its twelve-year history, and it’s hard for those of us who work here not to feel that, right now, somewhere he’s sitting quietly, watching the proceedings and occasionally snickering. But, of course, he’s not here.   All we can do is to offer a kind of celebration of his life and of our fondness for him.

It’s a shame that he didn’t live past 58–I know that I’d assumed that I would be working alongside him until sometime in the distant future. Retirement wasn’t something he talked about, except in the vaguest terms. He always seemed in good health. Certainly he was deeply concerned about the health of his family. I remember when, a couple of years ago, he and Steve went to get flu shots, even though neither of them fit into the high-risk category. His mother had developed a degenerative condition in middle age and was wheelchair-bound from the time Grant was a teenager, so he’d grown up with a concern for the health of others. One day I learned that Grant had had a common foot ailment from which I was then suffering. He made a few useful suggestions, which I am still carrying with me, that helped.

This ability to empathize with others was one of his best qualities. My mother died about a year after his mother did, and he suggested that I put a photo of her in a frame, as he had done, and that helped me with the grieving process.  Over the years, he dealt with numerous personnel issues, always carefully observing professional distance and propriety, yet I am sure he could listen to employees’ problems with the concern they deserved.

I don’t think Grant ever had a reference question that made him throw his arms up in the air in frustration.  Sometimes, I have to admit, I would say to myself, “Is it really necessary to do all that stuff for that student?” Yet Grant did.  And he went way beyond that–in his book reviews, manuscript editing, literature guides, and bibliographies.  None of that was necessary for him to keep his job–it was simply work that he loved to do.

When I first was hired, like a lot of others, I was given a tour of Flint. These tours frequently take the new employee to the “nicer” parts of town, like the East Court or Miller Road neighborhoods, in an effort to counter negative perceptions of the city.  Grant’s tour, however, included the Fenton Road “Little Missouri” area, the North Dort junkyard district, Buick City and the nearby ghetto neighborhoods, and of course “Chevy In the Hole.”  Grant didn’t happen to live in one of the “nicer” neighborhoods, nor did I, nor was I only interested in documenting the history of parts of the community, so I guess I found a kindred spirit.

Along the way, I met and fell in love with a recently hired English professor who’d moved into my neighborhood.  Grant and I would talk regularly about various developments in our lives, and I guess one of those days I brought up the subject of marriage.  He related his experience with Stephanie and said simply, “Well, it’s nice.” So, I took his advice and ran to the altar.

Grant was devoted to his family.   For years, when three o’clock rolled around, he would leave work to go pick up Andrea and Steve at Powers High School and take them home.  He liked to go up to his father’s home at Temple, where his people had run the only hotel in a town that once was so wild, in the words to a local ditty (to the tune of “Casey Jones”) that an old friend of mine from that area sang, “he ran out of Temple like a bat out of hell.”  And sometimes, when he caught an unpleasant whiff of the tobacco I was smoking, he was reminded of the Ann Arbor Railroad facility where his father worked.

So now, Grant will live on only in the memories of those lucky enough to have known him.  His two kids were his pride and joy and probably his most important concern.  As they left high school and went on to college and to future plans, they gave their dad a great deal of satisfaction. So, in one sense, his death came not at a bad time. But, for those of us who still work in the library, we will certainly feel him lurking among the shadows.  And, right now, he’s probably sitting up on a bookshelf somewhere, looking down at us, and wondering what the big fuss is all about.

I’ll miss the private jokes, like his observations on the dress of home-schoolers, the need for Bush advisers to consult on Israel policy with millenarian “mark of the beast” specialists, and ordering the petite dissertation of an ex-chancellor.   But more than the private jokes were the droll observations.  Whenever he started a monologue with a slight hesitation at a meeting, we knew to wait patiently for the observation to take shape, because there was always something humorous about to reveal itself.   He never took himself too seriously.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to consider Grant a friend can now only look back with pleasure at our friendships and wonder, if he’s watching us from somewhere, if he gets the last laugh.  And somewhere out there he’s watching.


Closing Remarks


Robert Houbeck, Director, Thompson Library:

Permit me here a closing word. I want to speak in particular to Andrea and Steven.

One thing always impressed me about your dad: He had his priorities in order. Among those priorities, his family came first. He organized his life to make sure he had time for you. That is something to treasure and to honor.

I noticed something else about your dad, something that I very much admired. I never met your grandfather, but your dad would speak of him occasionally. I noticed the special solicitude he displayed toward him as he was growing older. He’d visit him regularly, he’d help him with shopping, he’d help him get his license renewed – or not. I’m sure that solicitude cost your dad a certain aggravation. But he did it.

Now Grant was not a conventionally religious person. In fact, arguments about religion were one of our ongoing debate themes. But I want to draw your attention to your father’s piety toward his parents, and especially his father (and I use that Latin term, piety, intentionally) – that piety was a classical virtue that your father lived. You should remember, and treasure, and honor that commitment that he showed. In his life he really lived the classical injunction to “honor your father and your mother.” One way to honor your father is to do the same – by taking care of the woman he treasured, your mother.

When we say we wanted today to honor your dad’s life and achievements, we’re not talking about two separate things. His life was itself an achievement, an example of a good man and of a life well lived. We’re grateful that you’ve extended to us the opportunity to acknowledge the achievement of that life.

Bob Houbeck
20 February 2006


From the Flint Journal newspaper article dated January 10, 2006

             *          *          *          *          *          *

UM-Flint’s own Mark Twain dies at 58 – Grant Burns

Flint Journal, The (MI)    –    January 10, 2006

Author/Byline:           Shena Abercrombie, sabercrombie@flintjournal.com * 810.766.6307
Section:      GENESEE COUNTY
Page: A06


A Jan. 10 obituary should have indicated   that Grant Burns was a resident of East Lansing with two master’s degrees from the University of Michigan.

                    *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

FLINT – Longtime University of Michigan-Flint librarian Grant Burns, known by colleagues as the university’s own Mark Twain, died Thursday at Hurley Medical Center, where he was rushed after collapsing in the University Pavilion about 10:30 a.m.

A statement issued by UM-Flint Chancellor Juan Mestas and library director Robert L. Houbek said the cause of death for Burns, 58, appeared to be from heart-related issues.

He joined the Flint campus in 1977, and became known for a style reminiscent of his personal hero Mark Twain, in both appearance and writing style.

“Grant had that formidable mustache and that hair, but he was the glue that kept things together, always interested in helping,” Houbek said. “For me he was a great colleague – the person I would discuss ideas with. If he thought it was a bad idea, I generally didn’t pursue it.”

Houbek praised Burns’ writing and editing skills, most recently his work with the UM-Flint’s Strategic Plan and the French Hall renovation project.

“In committee service, he was a valued barometer: If he didn’t sigh and roll his eyes, one knew the matter under consideration had at least a modicum of common sense.”

Over the years he held campus positions such as head of library reference services, assistant library director and interim library director.

Associate librarian Vera Anderson first met Burns when she was an undergraduate student and he was a reference librarian.

“Then I went to him for help,” she said. “I’ve worked with him for about the past nine years. Then, he was the man who ran the library. He was a person to help you do your job better, and he always had the best interest of the faculty and students at heart.”

Prior to coming to UM-Flint, he worked as an assistant in the UM Law Library as a bookbinder and periodical clerk, and held an editorial job with the original New Pages, according to his Web site.

A prolific author, Burns was published throughout his career in Library Quarterly, Library Journal, and other professional journals. He also was a regular book reviewer for The Flint Journal in the 1980s and 1990s and wrote columns for local periodicals and “Uncle Frank’s Diary” at NewPages.com. He also was the author of several books.

Burns received his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and a master’s degree from UM.

The former 20-year Flint resident lived in Lansing and leaves his wife, Stephanie, and their children, Steven and Andrea.

Burns was cremated and there will be no funeral service at the family’s request. Campus leaders said a memorial service is being organized.

From the memorial service held for Grant Burns in the Atrium of the

Frances Willson Thompson Library, February 20, 2006 by those

that knew and worked with Grant:


   *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *






June 18, 1947 – January 5, 2006


Memorial Service
First Floor Atrium
Frances Willson Thompson Library
University of Michigan-Flint
Monday, February 20, 2006
1 p.m.

   *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *

Grant F. Burns died on January 5, 2006 in Flint, Michigan.

He was born on June 18, 1947 in Owosso, Michigan, to Francis M. and Marie A. (Olsen) Burns.

He married Stephanie Winston Voight in 1972.

They had two children, Andrea and Steven.

Grant earned a B.A. in social science at Michigan State University in 1969, an M.A. in English in 1973 at the University of Michigan, and an M.L.S. at the University of Michigan in 1976.

He was hired as a reference librarian by the University of Michigan-Flint in 1977.

He worked for many years as the head of reference services,  and served for the past ten years as the library’s assistant director.

He was a skilled writer and editor, and was the author of several books, including:

The Atomic Papers (1984);

The Sports Pages (1987);

Affordable Housing (1989);

The Nuclear Present (1992);

Librarians in Fiction (1998);

Railroads in American Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography (2005).

He contributed articles to many library journals, wrote a regular column for the Flint suburban newspaper group during the 90’s, and reviewed hundreds of books for the Flint Journal.

From 1981 to1991 he edited New Pages: News and Reviews of the Progressive Book Trade.

He also wrote an online column, “Uncle Frank’s Diary” (at NewPages.com).

Grant appreciated cats, and was particularly attached to the three who lived at his house:     Dave,   Wally, Jr.,  and  Rufus.

The family lived in East Lansing, Michigan, where they moved from Flint in 1999.

Grant was preceded in death by his mother.

He is survived by his wife, his two children, and his father.

Contributions in his honor may be made to the Grant Burns Reference Acquisition Fund, Thompson Library, University of Michigan-Flint, Flint, Michigan 48502.

   *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *


Song:    “In My Life”

Welcome and Introduction  by Robert L. Houbeck, Jr.
Director, Frances Willson Thompson Library


  • Juan Mestas
    Chancellor, University of Michigan-Flint
  • Margaret Leary
    Director, Law Library, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
  • William C. Webb
    Vice Chancellor of Administration, University of Michigan-Flint
  • Phyllis Valentine
    University Library, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
  • Bruce Rubenstein
    Professor, History Department, University of Michigan-Flint
  • Paul Gifford
    Archivist, Frances Willson Thompson Library



  • Andrea Burns
  • Steven Burns
  • Comments and Reminiscences from the Audience


Refreshments served immediately following the program.

 Contributions to the Grant Burns Library Fund may be made payable to the University of Michigan-Flint and sent to the Office of Institutional Advancement, University of Michigan-Flint, Flint, MI 48502-1950, with an accompanying indication that the donation be directed to the Grant Burns Library Fund.





It’s been 10 years, Grant.

We miss you still.