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Remembering Russell Burns
Russell had been fishing
Russell Burns shows off his catch of fish. - photo by Photo provided

Russell Burns was a character who brought lots of joy to his community, family and all he met. He was civic-minded and devoted much time to the welfare of Springfield and Effingham County. I think it appropriate to honor his memory at Thanksgiving, remembering him with thanks for his service to us.

Russell was the son of Ellis and Bessie (Gnann) Burns. Raised in Springfield, he enjoyed his siblings, Ernest, Miriam (Riggs), Eva Belle (Pevey) and Merrill Burns. As a boy he loved to spend time at his grandfather Johnny Gnann’s place learning how to farm and raise livestock. He loved to go fishing and would come home with wet, fishy, smelly socks that he would try to smear all over his sisters, who soon learned to run and get out of his way.

One of Russell’s neighbors was Mr. Hammy Rahn, and he loved to spend time around him. Russell could make sounds like a cow and he mooed like a cow one day, causing Hammy’s cow to jump the fence and get out. When Hammy’s beloved mule died, Russell mailed him a sympathy card.

When Russell’s mother was reading the Bible aloud to the children in the dining room during their daily devotional, they were giggling and misbehaving. She told them that she couldn’t read with all the carrying on. Russell told her maybe she should go to school.

Ernest was always tussling with Russell. Russell would let him think he was going to take him down, and in the end he would easily bump him down but let him go on for a long time, thinking he was winning. All of his life, he did not like to see the big dog step on the little dog, always rooting for the underdog.

When Russell was dating, he often took his little brother Merrill, who was 4 or 5 years old, along. One night he pushed Merrill inside and closed the door at a girl’s house, causing Merrill to think he had left him there.  Of course this was just Russell kidding as usual.

One evening, Otis Tebeau and Russell decided to take two young ladies out who were visiting Mr. Cap and Mrs. Nora Burns. They took them to Orley Strange’s Sweet Shop, just north of Varnell’s Cheverolet and south of Irvin Edwards’ Springfield Trading Company. Russell told them he would get something for all of them and purchased five silver tip candies for one cent (they were five for one cent), passing them out, one to each of the four of them. He then said he should keep the fifth one since he had paid for them. 

Of course, they did buy a nice treat for their girls but he had his fun first.

When Russell decided to marry Lucille Bevill, he came in one night and told his mother she would need her to give him some household items that he specified. When she inquired as to why, he said he was getting married and that is how he told his folks.

Not long after they married, while he and Lucille were living upstairs at Nora and Cap Burns’ (where the current State Farm office is located in Springfield), they had a couple over for supper and Russell and the other male visitor volunteered to wash the dishes. A while later when the ladies missed them they found the dirty dishes still in the kitchen; the men had jumped out of the upstairs window and left.

He and Lucille had four children: Carolyn (Gnann), Steve, Greg and Johnny. Johnny had muscular dystrophy and died at age 24. Greg has now passed away, also.

Most of his life Russell was a good mechanic, operating in various service station locations in Springfield. His brother Merrill said if a car that was fixed at the Burns’ shop went over the railroad and something came off, he would try to fix it to no avail but if Russell just touched it, it was fixed.

Many remember the shop he had where the laundromat now sits across the street near Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. From a bag of rags he had acquired, he found a big pair of bloomers and stretched the under drawers over the sign leaving the only words visible on the business sign, “Not Responsible.”

He farmed and raised hogs, chickens, pigeons and rabbits. He ran a produce stand in front of his home on Railroad Avenue that was on the honor system. He left a jar with change with his vegetables where people would help themselves, making their own change. He had a garbage service at one time and collected food scraps for his hogs at the hospital and wherever he could until sanitation laws made that illegal.

Russell operated “Johnny’s”, a fruit stand on Laurel Street, to give his disabled son who became wheelchair bound something to do and feel useful. He once hatched a double yolk egg he had set under a hen that had twin biddies. Sister Miriam says one of the happiest times she ever saw him was sitting at his pig pen on Courthouse Road, surround by his livestock, chewing sugar cane and laughing.

Russell did a little bit of everything along with mechanic work, including operating Burns Wood Yard, cutting and splitting firewood for sale, delivered by the truckload. He sold used cars for a time near the Western Auto in Springfield with Hartridge Reiser. He peddled fish and vegetables in some of the outlying communities going around in his truck. Russell was a jack of many trades.

He loved to fish, going to the Runs Creek, banks at the river and Hadden Lake. Son-in-law Walt Gnann attests that he was not a quiet fisherman. Usually manning about four poles, he wadded and stomped about in the water and was very loud but always caught the most fish. He would drive any old truck fishing, stopping to add water four or five times in a leaky radiator or having to make repairs en route, which he could easily accomplish.

Russell loved sports and was a coach and pitched for his church, Holy Trinity Lutheran, softball team. If there was a game of baseball, softball or basketball, he went to watch.  He had a regular place in the Springfield ball field stands right by Ross Rountree for years after he gave up playing himself.

Russell served his community well.  He was the Springfield volunteer fire chief for 20 years, served as a school trustee and was a member of the Lions Club. The first fire truck the department had was a pickup truck with a hose. When the school burned, that was literally all they had. In 1950, they acquired a “homemade” 1946 Chevrolet truck with a 750 gallon tank. He saw many improvements in the equipment and was vital to the repair work of the makeshift older equipment they used for many years.

Russell ran unsuccessfully for sheriff against Mr. Lindsey and his daughter Carolyn said the Lord had a hand in the outcome for the benefit of his family. He was elected coroner and served the county for a period of time.

When the hospital opened in 1969, Russell went to work there as an orderly. There was no formal ambulance service and what had been provided was done by the funeral homes and wrecker services. Seeing the needs of the community, Leslie Thompson’s Funeral Home donated a 1961 Cadillac for use as an ambulance for the county on Feb. 1, 1970.  This service came to be owned and operated by Russell Burns based at Effingham Hospital. His sidekick was Odis Bevill. They worked as hospital and nursing home attendants when they did not have calls for the ambulance.

One call that Russell made was to an accident on Highway 21 north of Springfield. A young mother, Mae Edwards Beard had become airborne after a tire blew out, wrapping her Ford Falcon around an electrical service pole. No one could get to her as the lines came down, sparking and charging the water in the ditch surrounding her.

I was witness to this accident as a child but I never knew until doing this story of what Russell told Mae during the difficult extrication from the vehicle. This was before the days of the “Jaws of Life” or formal emergency medical technicians. Mae told him she was not going to make it. He gave her a quarter and told her he bet she would make it.  She did survive, although paralyzed and outlived Russell. When Mae visited the funeral home at Russell’s death, she had the quarter he gave her put into his casket.

He sat with many people when they were sick. His family had a close relationship with the Calhouns. When Mr. Calhoun was very ill, the hospital staff was going to tie his hands down as he was very agitated. Russell did not want to see it done so he told Mrs. Calhoun, “If you hold one hand, I’ll hold the other and he won’t have to be tied down.” He faithfully carried out his task. He had great compassion for the sick and elderly and could be very gentle in stark contrast to his stature and size.

The stories about Russell at Effingham Hospital are many. Sometimes whoever was at the nurses’ station took the calls  For an ambulance, you dialed the hospital for dispatch, as there was no EMS or 911 call system at the time. Dr. Webb himself answered the phone one day, which was a call from the Seaboard Railroad. This was during the time when we were having many marijuana busts.

It was very common for the railroad to have someone coming down the coast transporting drugs.

The call came in that day that they were going to have to put an injured man off the train at Berryville. The story goes the guy had just enough information to know they were going to do a drug bust in Savannah. So he broke into the little emergency fire case on the wall and took the ax out and chopped his hand so he would have an injury and then he claimed he needed to go to a hospital right away.

The railroad made arrangements because Effingham was the closest hospital.

Dr. Webb was in rare form that day when he took the call to send an ambulance to Berryville. Dr. Webb gave a written note to Odis saying, “I need you to go to Berryville and pick up this patient.” And Odis hollered reading the note, “Come on Russell. We are going to Berryville to pick up Jesus?” They did not give the right pronunciation to the name of the man of Spanish descent who had left New York for Miami. No one ever forgot that Russell and Odis picked up Jesus in Berryville and it brought laughter for years to come.

Much more could be said of Russell Burns who was truly “a one and only.” He walked with a little hitch and was always friendly and jolly.  Seldom did he wear a jacket, usually in short sleeves and in a hurry to get somewhere to do something for someone. He would pretty much tackle any task no matter what it was.  This fellow was loved by his family and community and served them well. He died after a bout of heart trouble from complications during open heart surgery in May 1985 at 68 years of age.

Mr. Russell’s legacy was that of service to our community, hard work, honor, strength and character.  He was indeed a unique beloved man who is truly missed.

Thanks to the suggestion of this column from Dollie Fulghum and Butch Kieffer and to Miriam Riggs, Steve Burns and Carolyn Gnann for their help.  Some information was obtained from “The History of Medicine in Effingham County”by Betty F. Renfro and the 1984 anniversary edition of The Springfield Herald.

This was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society. If you have photos, comments or information to share, contact Susan Exley at 754-6681 or email her at: