The late former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican from Billings, would have loved the hoopla at Wednesday’s unveiling at MetraPark of a road sign in his honor — but not so much the sign itself, friends and family said.
“I think he would have loved coming to a party like this. He didn’t want anything named after him,” said his wife, Phyllis Burns, at a ceremony honoring her husband’s contributions to Montana and the local community.
“He wasn’t into that. Just to get it done was enough reward for him,” she said.
But almost 50 public officials, friends and associates turned out to celebrate Burns’ contributions as a senator and former Yellowstone County commissioner and to tell stories.
The large sign, proclaiming Conrad Burns Memorial Highway in honor of Burns, will mark the portion of Highway 3 that runs from Main Street, near MetraPark, up to the Billings Logan International Airport. As senator, Burns helped secure federal funding to improve the roadway and other highway projects and to help the development of telecommunications.
Also unveiled at Wednesday’s event was a sandstone rock bearing Burns’ livestock brand: bar C bar. The rock, which had been at the Burns residence in the Heights, was relocated to MetraPark, next to the flag poles. Burns helped support the construction of MetraPark arena years ago, was the first manager of NILE, a livestock show held annually on the grounds, and helped manage grounds as county commissioner.
The 2017 Legislature approved dedicating a portion of Highway 3 after Burns. The legislation was sponsored by Billings Republicans Sen. Roger Webb and Rep. Dale Mortensen, who both spoke at the ceremony.
The idea for honoring Burns with a road sign grew from a conversation Yellowstone County Commissioner Denis Pitman said he had with Phyllis Burns over what to do with Burns’ branding rock that was in their yard.
An agricultural broadcaster who founded the Northern Ag Network, Burns also was an auctioneer. He was elected to the Yellowstone County commission in 1986 and then to the U.S. Senate in 1988, where he served for 18 years before losing in the 2006 election to Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat.
Burns died at 81 in 2016 after suffering a stroke a few years earlier.
Taylor Brown, a former state senator from Huntley who worked for Burns at the Northern Ag Network, called Burns a stockman whose heart was in the livestock industry. He also was dedicated to helping rural families and rural youth, he said.
Brown said he still has Burns’ saddle hanging in his tack room. Saying he wouldn’t need it while in Washington, D.C., Burns gave him the saddle for safe keeping. He called for it once and asked Brown to bring it, along with horses for him and a Montana delegation, to ride in the inaugural parade for President George W. Bush.
“We did in fact do that,” Brown said.
Former U.S. Marshal Dwight MacKay, another longtime friend who served with Burns on the county commission and was his state director, said he got to know Burns when he joined the commission.
People were jockeying over office space, prompting Burns to ask him what was going on, MacKay said. “Just a zone change,” MacKay said he replied. “What’s a zone change?” Burns asked, he said.
MacKay also noted Burns’ service in the U.S. Marine Corps and how he wouldn’t take credit for legislative accomplishments, including the millions of dollars that improved roadways. Instead, Burns would comment on what a good road it was, he said.
As commissioners, Burns and MacKay approved claims, not with their signatures, but with their brands, he said. Burns used the bar C bar and MacKay used the Top Hat, the brand for his ranch. “It always went through,” MacKay said.
Other speakers included Billings Mayor Tom Hanel; representatives for Gov. Steve Bullock, Sen. Steve Daines and Sen. Jon Tester; and Commissioner Jon Ostlund.