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Patti Burns' friends honor her life, work

Monday, December 10, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Television news anchors have a variety of roles -- bearers of good and bad news, comforters in times of national tragedy, chroniclers of the day's events -- but viewers don't often see them at their most human.

Last night in a memorial service at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, viewers who knew Patti Burns only from TV heard about the person behind the icon.

Lynn Sawyer, right, and Mary Robb Jackson speak about their former co-worker, Patti Burns, at a memorial service for the former KDKA anchor yesterday in the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. (Joyce Mendelsohn/Post-Gazette)

Burns died of lung cancer at age 49 on Oct. 31. She will be remembered by many as KDKA-TV's popular anchor who rose to notoriety sitting at the anchor desk next to her father, the late Bill Burns, as half of the "Patti and Daddy" team.

More than 50 people who didn't know her personally joined the several hundred invited guests at the service and heard testimony from friends, co-workers and her husband, attorney Chuck Cohen, for whom Burns was a trusted confidant and supporter.

KDKA reporter Mary Robb Jackson and former KD consumer reporter Lynn Sawyer said Burns invited them to lunch in the summer, surprising them when she made a presentation before the meal, giving them each a book by Anna Quindlen, "A Short Guide to a Happy Life." Inside each book, they found a lottery ticket.

"We hit the jackpot with Patti as our friend," Sawyer said.

Carolyn Wean, vice president of production and business development at WQED, was Burns' one-time boss at KDKA. At some point after leaving KDKA, Wean had surgery. When Burns learned about it, she called Wean and insisted they go to lunch.

"She gave you a piece of herself," Wean said.

Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy said he and Burns didn't make a winning first impression on one another when they met in a public speaking class after Burns left KDKA. But then they connected over a shared interest in revitalizing Pittsburgh, and Burns became his most fervent supporter, "a big sister" who helped him pick out a house to buy, suggested a decorator, even badgered him into getting a physical. When McClatchy reported back that he'd seen the doctor, she wasn't surprised.

"I know," she said. "I called him."

KDKA reporter Dave Crawley spoke of Burns' "integrity, compassion and a wry sense of humor that sneaks up on you when you least expect it."

Wean described Burns' frequent attempts to make co-anchor Ray Tannehill laugh on the air by saying something outrageous and often "naughty" just before the newscast began.

KDKA reporter Harold Hayes accompanied Burns and her father to the Democratic National Convention in 1980, where he first heard her utter the phrase, "let me up," after a self-impressed news executive kept calling from Pittsburgh to check on their progress.

It became a phrase they would use frequently any time they saw someone getting too caught up in his or her own self-worth.

"The tale that will be told about her life is that she could have wrapped herself in pomposity given her position, given who her father was, but she was a very down-to-earth person," Hayes said. "Appreciative as she would be about all that has been said about her life and death on and off the air, even now, she's looking down on all of us, saying, with a smile, 'Let me up.'"

Lisa Speney, Burns' treatment nurse during her battle with cancer, recalled her patient's courage.

"She never cried in front of us, even though it would have been appropriate," Speney said. Instead, she remembered Burns comforting other patients and trying to find husbands for the single nurses.

McClatchy said he never heard Burns complain during her months of treatment. One time he could tell she wasn't feeling well, but she made no excuses.

"Honey, I've had hangovers worse than this," Burns said.

Though her humor was intact, Burns sought a renewed spiritual life during her illness. Weekly games of golf with longtime friend Stephanie Flannery were replaced by shared trips to Mass.

Burns began to frequently worship at the Newman Center. She liked it for its quiet solitude, for the fact no one would make a fuss over her, and because the service was over in "exactly 25 minutes," said the Rev. Brian Sommers.

At yesterday's commemoration, Sandy Staley sang a medley of "I'll See You Again" and "I'll Be Seeing You," accompanied by Joe Negri on guitar. There were also a few words from Fred Rogers, who said, "Thanks be to God, that we have had Patti Burns Cohen in our neighborhood."

Cohen, Burns' companion of 10 years and husband of just a few months, was the last to speak. He said the name "Patti Burns Cohen" never sounded exactly right to him, although "it gained some authenticity when I saw it on her Giant Eagle Advantage Card."

Cohen said he was lucky to know and love Patti Burns, and "though it is obviously the will of God that the mortal Patti Burns Cohen be laid aside, not to be laid aside, however, are the memories."

Cohen described her passing as peaceful, and said, "In the final moments of her life, Patti brought dignity to her surroundings." He remembered the day as "clear and crisp, perfect travel conditions for Patti's upward ascent."

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