May 24, 2004

Jefferson Award adds to Burns’


By Eric Rangus

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 said.

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 next year.

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.”