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ACLU Founder Dead at 89

April 15, 1989 GMT

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ George F. Burrows, a founding member in 1920 of the American Civil Liberties Union, is dead at age 89.

Burrows, who died of a brain tumor Monday in a Waltham nursing home, was described as a talented oddball whose passions ranged from social justice to Sherlock Holmes.

He was a New Deal Democrat who served as an early president of the Community Church of Boston, the first church to demand a fair trial for Sacco and Vanzetti. He also raised money to help defend the nine black Scottsboro Boys in the famous 1931 rape case.


″My house was filled with causes,″ said his son, the actor and author Orson Bean, in a telephone interview Friday from his home in Venice, Calif. ″One day we would have the people in from the radical organizations, the next day we’d have some typical Irish pols from the local Democratic organization.″

″More different kinds of people liked him than anyone else I’ve ever known,″ Bean added.

Born in Somerville to a clan of strict Scottish fundamentalists, Burrows dropped out of Harvard College and worked as a department store clerk and an insurance adjuster.

During the Depression he was an official with the U.S. Works Progress Administration, where he hired musicians to perform in the schools and artists to paint murals on public buildings. In World War II he was a civillian employee of the U.S. Army in the Aleutian Islands, but never told his son what he did.

″He claimed it was secret,″ said Bean.

Burrows also worked in a Boston shipyard before returning to Harvard, this time as a university policeman. He stayed 20 years.

Once during a 1960s riot, he was bitten on the leg by a Radcliffe student. ″I’m lucky she wasn’t taller,″ he later remarked.

Fellow Harvard officers were surprised to learn of Burrows’ political activities and did not recall him ever mentioning them.

Bean said his father’s penchant for working at jobs that might have been considered beneath him was ″almost an affectation.″

″He was a very learned person, but he hid his light under a bushel,″ said Joan Shurcliff, who also worked for the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Committee, as it was originally called. ″I’m not sure that he had to be a Harvard Yard policeman or show people around the Longfellow House but he loved doing it. He loved life and he loved the scene.″


Shurcliff said Burrows was an instrumental force when the Massachusetts group merged with Roger Baldwin’s New York-based ACLU in the early 1940s.

″He was a quiet accomplisher, doing all the nitty-gritty work in various organizations that required help in social justice,″ Shurcliff said.

″He was very mild, very gentle, an observer of life and yet had a very strong sense of social justice,″ she said.

Burrows also loved to join groups. He belonged to two Sherlock Homes appreciation groups, the Baker Street Irregulars and The Speckled Band, the Boston Browning Society, the Stratford Club of Cambridge, Mensa, the Harvard Faculty Club, the New England Astrological Association and the First Parish Unitarian in Harvard Square, where he lived.

Besides his son, Burrows leaves four grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for May 15 at the First Parish Unitarian.