About two weeks before Commencement, Thomas Burns, Samuel Candler
Dobbs Professor of History, was told he would be receiving the Thomas
Jefferson Award. That was just enough time to gather various family
members for this year’s graduation ceremony, where President
Jim Wagner presented him with the honor.
“I was very pleased,” said Burns. The Jefferson Award
recognizes a faculty member or administrator for significant service
in the areas of teaching, scholarship, University advancement, community
service and work with students.
“My second thought was how proud I was to be in the company
of those who had won it before,” Burns continued. “I
went through the list of all those who had won it since 1962 when
Dr. [Woolford] Baker, for whom we have this ravine named, won the
award,” he said, pointing out the back window of his Bowden
Hall office, which faces Baker Woodlands.
“He was the first. I’ve known all but a handful of the
recipients, and it was just a real pleasure for me to have my name
associated with them.”
Burns, an expert on the Roman Empire’s relationships with
its neighbors, came to Emory in 1974 when he was 28 years old. Save
a handful of visiting professorships, this is the only place he’s
worked. A prolific teacher, he is a previous winner of the Emory
Williams Award, and Burns long ago lost track of how many University
committees on which he has served. (A good estimate is about 135,
he said.) Loyalty aside, cocooning at one school is not necessarily
the way Burns saw his career going when he started.
“I just wanted to get tenure,” he said. “Then
I could stand on that rung of the ladder and move.” The year
Burns joined the faculty, his wife Carol also began working at Emory,
eventually rising to director of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center
library. As their careers flourished in parallel, sticking around
became more and more appealing.
“Once my wife and I decided to stay at Emory, we didn’t
encourage any job offers from outside simply because we didn’t
want to have that pressure brought within the family,” Burns
When daughter Catherine graduated from Emory College five years
ago, the Burnses became a two-generation Emory family. Carol retired
in 2000, which allowed the Burnses to travel. They went together
when Thomas was a visiting professor at the Universität Augsburg
in Germany and a distinguished scholar-in-residence at the University
of Adelaide in Australia.
While Burns has been on the faculty for 30 years, he has hardly
slowed down. In 2003–04, he taught four classes; served on
about a half dozen committees, including the chairship of Emory
College’s academic standards committee; and saw the publication
of his latest book, Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C.–A.D.
400. That well-received monograph—Burns’ fourth,
and he has co-written two others—has been a featured selection
of three book clubs.
“I never saw anything I couldn’t do at Emory that I
wanted to do,” Burns said. “From the very first day,
I always was able to teach what I wanted. I could have said no to
my committee assignments, but I didn’t because I thought I
could do something to profit the community.”
This summer Burns will return to Pècs, Hungary, site of an
archaeological dig he directed during the 1990s. The last major
excavation of the site, a late Roman farm, was in 1999, and for
that project Burns chaperoned 20 Emory students who assisted with
the work. Burns’ current task is to work with colleagues from
Hungary and Germany to prepare their materials for publication sometime
Burns said he may go full tilt for about three more years, then
he might think about slowing down. “I love to teach,”
he said. “And I’ve had a nice, productive life here.”