My Dad Hank – His Story

Michael Burns
MDI Contributor

Dr. H.C. Burns was born Chaim/Henry/Hank Charles Bernstein, grew up in the lower east side of Manhattan. His dad owned and operated a butcher shop.

Mom was born Gertrude/Rusty Marion Ross and grew up in Wilmington Delaware, her dad, Morris, a furrier and real estate agent.

Hank was 12 when his dad died. According to the Jewish rules for mourning, to properly sit shiva for the deceased, there needed to be a minyan, a gathering of 10 men. Often he had to pay street people to come in to get the total up to 10. This made no sense to Henry, so he grew up drifting further and further away from caring about Judaism, or even the Jewish traditions. 

His youth was spent helping his mom work the butcher shop,  playing sports and doing his best in school. Dad went on to put himself through college, Cornell, and onto veterinary school at Michigan State. 

Dad met mom at his summer job waiting tables in the resorts of the Catskills. Mom was doing secretarial work in Manhattan at the time. She came up to the Catskills for vacation with her friends. 

After marrying and graduating school, Dad got a job in the English colony, Bahamas, working as the island’s vet. Clients included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, their aristocratic community, and the native population of the island. They lived there until he had to join the army. 

Dad served as a Captain in WWII, taking care of horses and other animals while stationed in the Philippines. Mom was living on a base in South Carolina with their first child, my sister Peggy born in 1944. While in transit to the Philippines for duty, Dad passed through Alameda, CA Navel Air Base, fell in love with the San Francisco bay area and moved the family there upon discharging from the army.

Dad began his own business in Oakland, a distributor of veterinary products to both large and small animal vets that covered all of the western states. I was born in ’48 and younger sister Joyce arrived in ’51.

As you can see from Dad’s journey, he was very practical and realistic. His story is that traditional American dream of a self-made man who overcame all obstacles with vision, discipline, commitment, and “elbow grease.” 

The “Jewish” experience he had as a kid led him to embrace a philosophy that his life is best served by being identified only through his thoughts, words, and actions rather than external labels. Hence Burns not Bernstein.

When Hank brought the family to the Bay Area, the family had no religion. We assimilated into the cultural traditions of the community, and, even though many of Mom and Dad’s friends over the decades were Jewish, none of them ever knew my folks came from Orthodox Jewish families. We children were free to explore, experiment, choose, adopt whatever path we found for ourselves. Fast forward at 78, 75, 72 years of age, the three Burns children have grown into Dad’s life philosophy of “label-less-ness.”

I have been exploring, experimenting, choosing different experiences and paths ever since I was sent away to college at U.C. Santa Barbara in 1966. I’ve been on hold for a few years from stretching and taking on new adventures, due to the pandemic and my wife Patty’s bout with cancer and chemo.

I very likely will move on from this current plateau to ascend other mountains in the future.

Ha Shem willing.

Dad, Mom, lil sis, big sis and youngest son. And then there’s me.

5 thoughts on “My Dad Hank – His Story”

    1. Yes, you and the other contributors have a selfless path. Very few responses from the men. Doesn’t mean they aren’t reading and “judging.” :) Keep sharing buddy.

  1. Mike,

    This is great stuff! Thank you for writing it. Your father’s journey, and your journey, are fascinating.

    Having been an Orthodox Jew in my youth, I recall recruiting men off the street to obtain a minyan (quorum of ten) for the Kaddish prayer. Though the thought of paying for this never occurred to me. The requirement of a minyan is actually quite practical, as it builds community.

    There is a connection between Judaism and men’s circles: A man’s Hebrew name consists of his given name, followed by the word “ben” (meaning “son of”), followed by his father’s given name. This seems very similar to the practice in our men’s circles.

    Judaism has evolved considerably over the years, even incorporating aspects of other religions and spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation. Judaism seems to still be a part of your life, as demonstrated by the last line of your article.

    Thank you for a most insightful article. I send you all blessings on your continued journey.

    – Jon T. Strauss, SMW 5-93, LD 5-09
    son of Jerome E. Strauss (1922-2003)

    1. Toda Raba Jon,

      I spent 1 1/2 yrs in Israel exploring my “roots” to see if that was my missing identity. Loved the time in ha eratz, loved the education in Judaism, Zionism, and Hebrew. Practice none of it since! I was there during the Yom Kippur War in ’73 and Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in ’77. Fairly significant times there!.
      Shevua tova

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