From community causes to publisher of the Fergus Elora News Express, James Burnett loved his community
Life was a series of experiences for James Burnett, for which he made the most out of them.
The highly-involved Fergus resident was most known as the former publisher and editor of the Fergus Elora News Express. After that, he was deputy mayor, a pilot, photographer and a travel agent.
On Oct. 15, James Burnett passed away at the age of 77 after being diagnosed with dementia in 2019. His family said James was a man always looking for his next challenge and surprised neighbours with everything he has accomplished in life.
“So many people said, ‘I didn’t know he did that!’ and ‘I didn’t know he did that!'” commented his wife Donna. “There were so many things about him that people never knew because he didn’t talk a lot about them.”
“The most common thing we’ve heard over the last week or so, was just how humble he was,” adds Kevin, James’ son.
“Humble, talented, creative, driven, soft spoken and gentle,” adds Donna.
James was born June 8, 1945 in Charlottetown to Ian and Mildred Burnett. The oldest of five siblings, Kevin said his family lived close to the Charlottetown Guardian, the local newspaper owned by James’ father and uncles.
“I’m pretty sure he had some dabbling in the works of the paper, but I don’t know how heavily involved he was in his early life,” said Kevin.
In the summertime, the family vacationed close by in a cottage outside of Charlottetown. At the cottage, James dug for mussels and swam in the river.
“The family would stay in the cottage at the summer and the dad would drive into Charlottetown to work,” said Donna.
The family business brought James to Guelph as his father worked for the Guelph Guardian, a newspaper that lasted for five years in the 1960s.
As a teenager, James attended Guelph CVI and played for the football team. Donna said she met James after high school. She was in her late teens working for the University of Guelph and was a car salesman.
“He loved music, he was playing in a band at the time that we met,” said Donna about James being part of the local band, The Don Singular Trio.
“He was playing sometimes at Leisure Lodge, which was in Kitchener. He always had an interest in music.”
The couple married in 1971 and moved to Fergus shortly after James got a job in the advertising department at the Fergus-Elora News Express. It wasn’t long before James got promoted to editor and publisher. He worked for the newspaper for over 20 years, staying for five years after selling the publication in 1989.
Leanne Peters, James’ daughter, said she was always so proud of her dad and his work. She adds everywhere they went people knew her father by name and seemed happy to be in his company.
“He taught me about photography and writing, showed me how to develop prints in his dark room, and how to format the paper before sending it off to the printer. He drove me around on my paper route. He even hired by brother and I and some friends to insert flyers into the papers prior to distribution.”
Community minded, James also volunteered for multiple organizations, sat on the hospital and police board and he served as deputy mayor on city council.
James also supported his kids in sport, whether cheering on Leanne at baseball and doing judo with his son. Kevin explains he and his father signed up for a program in Elora in 1985. At first, they were in separate classes, but eventually ended up in the same adult classes, training three times a week.
“We got our black belts together,” said Kevin. “It was just another good experience, something for us to share together, just the two of us.”
“Family was another big thing, he loved family time together,” adds Donna.
“He loved geography for sure. He was a very, very, very amazing Trivial Pursuit player. He knew a lot of answers and if a geography question came up, the rest of us would say, ‘Well, never mind! He’s got it in the bag,'”
Transitioning out of the news industry, James followed his passions into different business ventures. Kevin said his father started a photography business and took photos of weddings and landscapes. Since he was a licensed pilot, James also offered aerial photography.
“Photography was something he was involved with as long as I can remember, even while he was running the paper and he transitioned out of the paper and into his own photography business,” said Kevin.
“It seemed to be a good fit for a little bit of a niche market for him to again, expand his horizons and take on new challenges.”
With a love for travelling James took online courses and became a travel agent and worked mainly from home. He and Donna also did their own travelling to Italy, Greece, Las Vegas and Florida. The family did a lot of final trip the family took together was a Disney cruises.
“It was wonderful,” Kevin said about the last trip together. “It was a Disney cruise ship, the Disney Wish, and he absolutely loved the trip.”
Both Donna and Kevin agree James taught others to do what you want and to try as many things as possible.
“The drive and the perseverance to try new things, to get out of your comfort zone and experience as much as you can,” said Kevin.
“He was just an incredible man who genuinely cared about his community and the people that surrounded him,” said Leanne. “He was a loving and caring father and grandfather and we will miss him endlessly.”