Originally Published March 12, 2003, Ithaca Times   

Word Count: 2435



An Irish Tale

By Tom M. Paolangeli




If you don’t know Jack, you’re in the minority here. John Charles “Jack” Burns has sold real estate in Ithaca for over fifty years, and has been singing and entertaining longer than that. A relaxed man with a twinkle in his eye, they should have a picture of him in the dictionary next to the definition of “affable”: 1. Easy to converse with. 2. Marked by gentleness and graciousness.


With St. Patrick’s Day coming up, it seemed like a good time to talk to Jack about himself and his Irish ancestor’s long history in Ithaca.


You can learn a lot by looking around someone’s living room. Jack’s is warm and cozy, not the least ostentatious, with lots of family pictures prominently placed. A book about Ireland and a book of Irish songs rest on the coffee table. But the most telling features are a piano against one wall and a monstrous organ against the other. Music definitely matters here.


Jack is the singer, his wife Barbara is the keyboardist. Though they’ve only been married two and half years, they’ve been good friends for over forty. They originally met when Barbara was recruited to play piano for Jack’s opera club. Jack’s first wife of thirty years, Peggy, passed away in 1997.


As I settled into the sofa next to Barbara, Jack brought out a scrapbook full of carefully preserved photographs and music programs, some over one hundred years old, and began his story.


“My grandfather Michael came here from Ireland in 1860,” Jack said. “He came over with his mother. I’m not sure what happened to his father, I think he had died. They knew some people that lived around Trumansburg, so they settled there.”


Michael had the unfortunate luck to be born in Ireland in 1846, right at the beginning of the Potato Famine. The year before a “blight” had ruined Ireland’s potato crop. About half of Ireland’s population depended on potatoes for subsistence, so the resulting famine was devastating. Over the next ten years, more than 750,000 Irish died, and another 2 million emigrated, many to the America.


“After my grandfather graduated from school he got a job managing the Lehigh Valley Railroad freight station in Trumansburg. That area up there between the lakes was the breadbasket for New York City. Later he took a job at the Lackawana freight station in Ithaca’s West End.”


Around 1885 the family settled into a house near Washington Park at the corner of Park Place and Court Street. Michael and his wife Mary had four sons: Tom, Walt, John (Jack’s dad, born in 1894) and Paul.


The Burns boys all went to Immaculate Conception Catholic School. Jack showed me a well-preserved photograph of his father’s somber looking eighth grade graduating class, circa 1907.


“Church was the center of Irish immigrant society,” Jack said. “They came from a place where 99 percent of the people were Roman Catholics, to a town that was 75-80% Protestant. The Irish were considered low class people. They kinda circled the wagons for their own protection.  First they built a church, then they built the school. They realized their kids had to have a really good education.”


“Back then,” Jack continues, “you didn’t have Irish employers, or bankers, or professors. So they had to work a little harder than the average person to make it. Eventually people realized that despite that they were Roman Catholic and Irish, they could get the job done. So they prospered, and some moved up on East Hill with the professors.” Jack laughs. “Became ‘Lace Curtain Irish.’”


(The term “Lace-curtain Irish” refers to the attempt by many Famine Irish immigrants to achieve social status with a show of material things in an often hostile American Protestant society.)



“Anyway,” Jack said, “the Irish immigrant’s kids went on to college, and some became doctors and lawyers and so forth. Moved right up in society.”


Many of Ithaca’s first Irish were farmers or storekeepers. Later, some were quite successful in the construction business. The Driscoll’s built many houses on East hill, and when the High School burnt down in 1913-14, they built DeWitt. Another Irish family, the Conley’s, went into road construction just as America began to embrace the automobile, thus generating a huge need for roads.


In 1910 Jack’s grandfather became involved in a project at the corner of Tioga and Seneca Street. Ninety years before anyone had heard of Ciminelli, they wanted to build a hotel at that site.


“They got as far as building the first floor, which was going to be the lobby, but either ran out of capitol or decided there just wasn’t enough business. So the Ithaca Realty Company moved in, and my grandfather was asked to be the manager. That building is still there. It was known as the Realty Building until Beam Travel moved in.”


In 1914 Jack’s grandfather and father formed their own company, Burns Reality, and were quite successful. Jack would eventually join the firm, which he ran until its closing in 1980.


“In the early 1900’s, Grandmother Burns said that since all her friends now lived on East hill, they needed to move too. So they bought a house on East Seneca street. One of their tenants was Miss Laura Bryant. She’d come to town around 1908, and was head of vocal music for public schools. She ran glee and choral clubs, had tie ins with Cornell and Ithaca College.”


Miss Bryant played an important role in many of the Burns family stories. “In 1912,” Jack continued, “they had a grand opening for Bailey Hall. Metropolitan Opera singers came in to do the lead roles, but they asked Miss Bryant for four or five youngsters to fill out the chorus. My mother and her friend Clare Driscoll got to sing. Boy were they proud.”



“My mother, Marion Sullivan, met my father in high school, but she wanted to be a professional person, wanted to be a nurse. So when she graduated from high school in 1913, she went to King’s County hospital in Brooklyn. Then during World War One, she worked in a munitions factory in Virginia.”


“My father wanted to go fight the war, but his two older brothers had already enlisted, and someone had to stay here to help his aging parents and younger brother. In 1917 he helped organize the New York State Police force. They trained up near Syracuse, where the Fairground is now. They were known as the “Gray Riders,” because originally they rode horses.


“After the war, my mother came back to Ithaca, and in 1922 they decided it was time to get married. I was born in 1924. We lived in an apartment house on North Cayuga Street. On the second floor lived Patsy Conway, the famous bandleader. His bands would rehearse in the bandstand at Dewitt Park. One day when my younger sister Clare was three years old, Patsy asked if he could take her to rehearsal. He was a very tall man, so it was quite a sight to see this little girl walking down Cayuga Street with this big tall man dressed in a band uniform.” Jack laughs, his eyes get a little misty. “It was a different time….”


Clare would grow up to become quite an accomplished singer. Jack had another sister, Marion, and a brother, Robert, who handled real estate for Roy Park. Though Jack was the oldest, he has outlived all his siblings.


“We moved from Cayuga Street in 1928. Father bought a house on Ithaca Road. Lots of young families were moving into that area. Belle Sherman school was just being completed. I was one of the first kids to attend.”


“At Christmas time the City Forester would decorate a big pine tree in middle of Bryant Park. We’d all gather and sing carols around the tree, 75-100 people, with a brass quartet. Then we’d go around the neighborhood, caroling. When we were done they’d reward the kids with Fanny Farmer candies.”


Jack has many other fond memories of growing up during the 1930’s. “It was a wonderful time, and a wonderful place to grow up. I went to junior high at Boynton, which is now Beverly Martin School. Boynton was brand new, and had a beautiful gymnasium. They had a terrific music program. I learned a lot, and I got pretty good. One day Miss Bryant told my folks about a choir at St. John’s Episcopal Church. She said if I became a soloist, I could get paid. My father said, ‘Sounds good to me.’ So on Sundays I’d go to 9:00 mass at Immaculate Conception, then at 10 go over to St. John’s for rehearsal. Then I sang at the 11:00 service. I made two bucks a month as a soloist. It was really nice. Miss Bryant got boys from all over the city, all walks of life, involved with the choir.”


“Back then what brought all the different groups of people together was music and athletics. That’s how we got to know each other. Ithaca High football games were a big thing.”


Jack recalled a particular culinary treat. “After a movie, we’d say ‘Let’s go to Finky’s!’ Fink’s hot dog shop was on South Cayuga Street, down where Pritchard’s body shop is now.  It was a very small place. He had a sign on the wall saying he was an honorary member of Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Town. He was proud of that. He always had a big vat of boiling water, boiling the hotdogs. He had different relishes, 4 or 5 different types of cheese. Put all that on the hot dog, let the cheese melt, mmmmm, that hot dog was like ambrosia.”


“In winter we used to go skating at Van Etta’s (sp?) Damn. Near where the Wildflower Walk is now the city built a cabin. We’d come in to warm up. They had a fireplace in it. They also had a record player, but only one record. They’d play it over and over and over.” Jack rolls his eyes, laughs, and sings, “the music goes round and round, whoa oh oh, oh oh oh, and it comes out here.”


“Some winters Cayuga Lake froze over completely. My father had an old LaSalle car. One day he took us down to see the lake. We drove out on the ice and he hit the brakes and we slid all over and screamed and yelled. He said, ‘now don’t tell your mother!’”


In September 1942, Jack went to the Cornell Hotel School but left after his freshman year to join the Army Reserve Corps.



“One time the Army sent me to work in a mental institution out on Long Island. A lot of Italian and German prisoners were there.” He shakes his head. “I saw what the war did to people.”


“After the war I went to Hobart, took Liberal Arts. I wanted to try and figure out why people kill each other. I took some good courses there. It gave me a good background, and the confidence I could go out in the world and make a living for myself.”


“In 1948 I had a summer job as a lifeguard at Taughannock. One day I said to my friend, ‘Why don’t we swim to Ithaca?’ He said he didn’t want to but he’d row the boat. It took about 5 hours for the whole trip. When I got down near the inlet the water was disgusting. They didn’t have a very sophisticated sewage system back then. I was swimming through sewage. Two weeks afterwards I came down with polio. I have to wonder if there was a connection.”


“I was lucky, though. I didn’t have to get into an iron lung. Back then the Reconstruction Home served the whole Northeast for people recovering from polio.” 


“In 1951, when I was all through with school, my father said ‘What do you want to do?’ I said I don’t know. So he said, ‘Why don’t you try coming down to the office for 6 months? Just try it.’”


Jack laughs and Barbara shakes her head. I ask him why he’s stuck with Real Estate for over 50 years.


“I like ‘one to one’ type work. Every client is different. It’s a nice challenge to find out their needs, then find them a home, help them with financing. I love meeting new people. I love walking down the street and have so many people call out ‘Hi Jack’.”


“Also, you’re like an observer, seeing how things change; buildings, businesses, people, attitudes. In the 50’s some people didn’t want to sell their houses to Jews or Italians, or such. I was glad when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Fair Housing laws. Then you could just tell people they couldn’t legally discriminate anymore for race, religion, or creed. Eventually people accepted that.”



Jack married Margaret (Peggy) Donnelly in 1959. They had two children, Mimi, who’s now a landscape architect in Albuquerque, and Elizabeth, who works for an ad agency in Chicago. Peggy passed away in 1997.


Music has been a constant theme in Jack’s life. “I was in high school glee club, college glee club. I also had a barbershop quartet at Hobart. In 1950 Ithaca Opera started. I sang in the chorus. My sister Clare was a soloist. We put on productions in Boynton Junior High auditorium. First we did some simple productions, then we did Don Giovanni, then the Marriage of Figaro. We were young and didn’t know any better! They needed someone to sing lead baritone so I said I’d try it, so I sang the lead. I’ve sung in about 14 operas.”


Jack’s also a member of the Savage Club and Community Chorus. Once a month Jack and Barbara perform at Kendall.


“On Sunday’s I sing with St. Catherine’s choir, then we go to Barbara’s church, Christ Chapel, and sing there, too.” Jack laughs. “I’ve noticed that the two sermons are usually very similar.”


Jack has collected a few distinguished awards over the years. He was VFW’s man of the year in 1970, and Realtor of the year in 1990. Last year he was awarded Realtor Emeritus status in honor of his 50 years in the industry.


On March 11 Jack turned 79. He’s still selling Real Estate, still active in Rotary, still singing, still very involved in the community. I ask him if he’s had thoughts about retiring.


Barbara rolls her eyes and laughs. Jack just smiles. He doesn’t say anything, but I know the answer: not while there’s people to meet, houses to sell, and songs to be sung.






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