Two years ago, Le Burns’ financial advisor asked her why she was still working.
She didn’t need to be, but she said she had some unfinished business.
Friday was her last day of work at Pasco High School, where she had been athletic director for the past 14 years, as she begins retirement.
In all, the 62-year-old Burns was in education for 39 years — 25 of those as a physical education teacher.
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She started in the 1970s in the Tigard, Ore., district, moved to inner city Seattle, then came to Pasco High.
She succeeded Anne Hayden — who spent 17 years as the school’s A.D. herself — in 1999.
In Burns’ 14 years as athletic director, a lot of things have happened: facilities upgrades, new sports programs, more opportunities for kids, and the biggest change: the opening of Chiawana High School in 2009.
“The facility upgrades have been fabulous,” Burns said. “The year Chiawana opens, our gym gets condemned. So we had our basketball games and wrestling matches at Chiawana. To be able to work together was nice.”
Burns praised the school district for its support, as well as the Pasco school board.
“The school board understands how important athletics is,” she said. “We’ve waved the pay-to-play fee, because some families can’t afford it.
And our relationship with the city is the best in the state.”
The addition of girls bowling and girls wrestling was also a highlight for Burns.She won’t get into naming names of people she’ll miss, or in too many highlights.
But she did mention a loss that struck as both poignant and emotional in the 2006 nine-overtime 43-40 football loss to Bothell. That tied the national high school record at the time.
“By the eighth and ninth overtimes, the captains would meet at midfield,” she said. “They weren’t shaking hands anymore. They were hugging each other. At the end of the game, the players on both teams were hugging each other.”
To Burns, that’s what high school athletics is all about.
So when she saw the Pasco School District add a second high school in 2009, she was torn.
She didn’t like that it changed Pasco so much and split up the kids.
“But the high was it gave more kids chances to play sports,” she said.As what happens with a new school and new facilities, a lot of people wanted to go to Chiawana. An exodus of coaches moved across town, as did numerous student-athletes.
Burns knew there would be a drop in success at Pasco, as the talent pool dipped a bit and new coaches were going to need some time to get their programs up and running at Pasco High.
“After the first couple years after the split, I was thinking it would happen naturally,” she said. “When you divide the talent pool, that’s going to happen. We needed to coach the kids who are here.”
Burns didn’t see the two schools’ programs making equal strides.
“At Pasco High, we’ve been trying to turn the tide in both morale and talent,” Burns said. “After watching this for two or three years, we knew we’d have to do something. That’s why I stayed last year.”
Burns reached out to Bruce Brown at Proactive Coaching LLC.
“You can’t teach values in school,” she said. “You’re teaching kids what you value. But you can teach values in athletics. We have run with that. We built covenants in each sport for coaches and players.”
Burns sent nine of her coaches from various sports to go through the program.
Those nine coaches taught what they learned in July to the other coaches, and in August, 250 Pasco High athletes came to school for a day, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and learned the program.
Together, the coaches and athletes created the covenants for their sports.It worked in the classroom too.
“The kids wanted to sit in the T Zone, where athletes asked to sit in the front row or the middle row, where the best learning occurs,” said Burns. “I had some complaints from some teachers about it messing up their seating charts.”
Burns said they addressed the problem of a lack of leaders.
“When I was a kid, we went outside and played all day,” she said. “The older kids had more say in the games we played, but we learned from them. Today’s kids are never by themselves. There is always an adult with them, telling them what to do. The kids were never put in a leadership role.”
Now, she says, Pasco high has numerous leaders.
“It’s coaching to the potential of the team, not your opponent,” she said. “When my boys basketball players told the coach, ‘You’ve got to get on us more,’ that’s an example. It helped turn our season around.”
It’s become the Bulldog Way:
Leader — Does what is expected; Does something extra; Helps someone else;
Contributor — Does what is expected; Does something extra;
Participant — Does only what is expected;
Observer/detractor — Does less than what is expected.
Now, Burns readily admits the program hasn’t translated everything into victories, but the attitude is changed.
“We may have had very few wins, a lot of losses,” she said. “But we didn’t have kids quitting or parents complaining. The kids knew what the expectations were. They bought in. I think we built a great foundation.”
Which is why she stayed a little longer.
She leaves the program in Jake Davis’ hands, while she moves on to the next stage of life.
“I’m excited for me. Now my house, my yard comes first,” she said. “I don’t have specific plans.”
Except for the National Parks checklist. Burns bought a big pickup truck to pull her new trailer. She plans to camp in every one of our nation’s national parks, and go to spring training next year.
“I’m excited about the National Parks,” she said. “I’m not in a hurry. It’s not a race. It’s a journey.”
For Le Burns, it’s always been about the journey.