Conrad Burns’ roots go back to a plain white house on a small farm on the green rolling plains of Northwest Missouri. It was here where Burns says he learned the work ethic and life’s other lessons from hard-working parents who had survived the Great Depression. His father and mother regained the family farm after his father’s family lost it during the Depression.
By vast Montana standards, the Burns farm, now owned by someone else, isn’t much. “Two rocks and a dirt,” Conrad Burns recalls, half-jokingly. It’s only 180 acres, including some hills and a spring, but it was enough to support Russell and Mary Frances Burns, their two children, Conrad and younger sister Judy, and 45 registered Black Angus cattle. His mother, now 85, apologies that the farm house, which is no longer occupied, has fallen into disrepair since they sold the farm in 1974.
Conrad Burns was born in that farm house, four miles northwest of Gallatin, MO, and about an hour north of Kansas City, on Jan. 25, 1935. “He was born talking, wasn’t he?” says his aunt Georgie Morrie, when asked how Burns acquired his speaking skills.
In Missouri, hardly anyone calls him Conrad, even today. His mother, aunt and most everybody else still refer to him as Connie Burns.
Burns speaks with admiration for his parents. His father, who died in 1992, and his mother, who lives nearby in Cameron, MO, were “so pragmatic, they never ever lived in a dream world,” he says.
The Burns kids earned their keep on the farm, their mother says. Besides cattle, the family raised oats, corn, hay, hogs and chickens, and sold cream, eggs and other products throughout the year. The kids helped with the chores. “You have to have something to sell every month,” Conrad says.
Burns recalls working as a water boy, delivering drinking water to a threshing crew and pitching hay for 35 cents a day. “I can remember when Dad bought me my first 3-tine pitchfork,” Burns says, “I was 9 or 10. That was pretty big stuff.”
He learned to cultivate the fields with his father’s two mules. The farm had no tractor until 1947, no electricity until 1949, and no indoor plumbing until the mid-1950s. Times were often tough. Sometimes an orange in his stocking was the only Christmas present he got.
“Life was good,” Burns says. “I had a very happy childhood. We had no money, but we didn’t know it.
COMMENTS FROM THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL:
Here are some comments of Conrad Burns during the 1994 campaign for the U.S. Senate.
— Quoting writer P.J. O’Rourke in Rolling Stone magazine: “If you think health care is expensive now, wait until it’s free.”
— “Everybody ought to go broke once. It’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s a wonderful learning experience.”
— “We haven’t changed any, and we ain’t going to change. We’re way too old.”
— “Bureaucrats can make a lot of bad decisions, but they still get a check.”
— About the logging, mining and agricultural industries: “I don’t know how people who provide wealth are bad people.”
— About Congress: “As long as we’re not in session, the country feels pretty good, and we can’t damage ’em.”
— After his daughter told him she intended to go to law school instead of medical school: “Great. I’ll educate a doctor; I won’t educate a lawyer.” (She eventually went to medical school)
— “As far as growing up and what you did in life, I think that’s worth more than a PhD.”
— On his first speech in the U.S. Senate, which was about Montana’s statehood Centennial: “I was just squeezing the oil out of that desk. I was just shaking. Al Simpson (the Wyoming senator) said he was, to, on his first speech. He said, ‘If you weren’t like that, a lot of folks would be worrying about you.'”
— On how he enjoyed refereeing Class C football as much as Class AA, A, B and Frontier Conference football games: “In Fromberg on Friday afternoon, it’s those kids’ Super Bowl.”
— How he was described as a high school football player for the Gallatin (MO) Bulldogs: “He’s not quite big enough, but he sure is slow.”
— His late father, when showing Conrad Burns the $25 check he wrote to the doctor to deliver the future senator: “Just remember that. That’s what you’re worth. You’re not worth any more or any less than $25.”
Written by Charles S. Johnson, State Bureau Chief for the Billings Gazette, 1994