A tribute to Nonnie S. Burnes

A portrait of Nonnie Burnes.
Courtesy photo

The backstory of Nonnie Burnes was remarkable. She left a partnership at a leading Boston law firm to become associate justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court in a pioneering role among women. As commissioner of the Massachusetts Division of Insurance, she instituted long-sought reforms that increased competition and lowered costs for drivers.

She was a trustee of Northeastern, her alma mater, as well as a senior university fellow at the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. She supported the disenfranchised while creating scholarships for law students who were focused on social change. She had been a board member and chair of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts since 2012. 

“She’s so influential, so powerful—she’s done these incredible things in her life,” says Heather Yountz, a Northeastern law graduate who was mentored by Burnes. “But she doesn’t come across as anything other than a very kind, very warm, loving, open person.”

Nonnie S. Burnes, 79, a colorful and tireless personality who pursued adventure without flaunting her success, died on Saturday of kidney cancer. Her life was devoted to her husband, Richard Burnes, and their three children, as well as to the many people who would benefit from the variety of causes she championed.

“For all who were fortunate enough to know her, Nonnie Burnes was a pure joy; a person of unequaled spirit, courage, and grace, with a passion for helping others that defined her every undertaking,” says Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun. “Her impact on Northeastern is profound and everlasting. Her selfless commitment to equality, justice, and the good of society has permeated through everything she touched within and beyond our university. And her legacy will ripple outward, far beyond the confines of the city and state that she did so much to serve.”

The news of Burnes’s passing was especially painful for those who worked with her, were befriended by her, and loved her, because of her courage in the fight against cancer. The diagnosis had sharpened her focus, her friends say.

“‘She told me, ‘I have a lot I want to do,’” says Diane MacGillivray, the senior vice president for university advancement at Northeastern. “‘And I don’t know how much time I have, so we’d better do it fast.’”

Next month, the university will unveil a key piece of Burnes’ legacy—a new center bearing her family name, dedicated to social change and innovation. Through its mission, the center will work to create positive social change and empower people to realize better futures for themselves, their families, and their communities. 

MacGillivray estimates that Burnes stood 5 feet 2 inches.

“She was a powerhouse packed into a small package,” says MacGillivray, fighting back tears while smiling at the memory of her friend. “I think she would describe herself as a passionate social justice warrior. I would also describe her as a relentless optimist and believer that change is possible.”

Not only did Burnes support programs that helped people from all walks of life, says Elyse Cherry, a Northeastern law graduate, but she affirmed her commitment by treating people with empathy and respect.

“She was completely devoted to the idea that one lives one’s values,” says Cherry, chief executive officer at BlueHub Capital, a pioneering finance organization that helps build healthy communities. “Those terrific values and the ability to be empathetic and compassionate, combined with a wonderful intellect and a strategic mind, helped her in moving so many things forward.” 

The Burnes family, including Nonnie’s children, has been committed to fulfilling those values, says Margot Botsford, who, like Burnes, is a Northeastern law graduate who served on the Board of Trustees as well as the Massachusetts Superior Court.

“When you lose somebody, suddenly the larger picture comes into vision. The many facets of civic life that Nonnie and her husband have touched is incredible,” says Botsford. “One of Nonnie’s greatest qualities was that she was not afraid of anything. She had enormous self-confidence. She didn’t flaunt it by any stretch, but you always felt she knew what she wanted and what she was going to do. And she would do it.”

Burnes straddled two eras. Born in Cincinnati on May 25, 1942, she earned a political science degree from Wellesley College in 1964. While Richard Burnes, a venture capitalist, was co-founding Charles River Ventures in 1970, Nonnie was focused on raising their three children.

“She went to law school when she was raising her kids,” says Carol Ball, an associate justice who preceded Burnes to Superior Court by one year. “How she had the energy to accomplish everything she did, I just do not know.”

Burnes graduated from the School of Law in 1978. After 18 years at the Boston law firm Hill & Barlow, she was appointed to the Massachusetts Superior Court in 1996. 

“We were at the beginning of the wave of women being appointed as judges, and we were all excited about being ceiling-breakers and convention-changers,” Ball says. “Nonnie was so smart, so funny. She plunged right into the work of the court with enthusiasm and dedication, and she quickly became a leader.”

She arrived with little criminal experience, says Ball, who recalls Burnes being “horrified” by the mandatory minimum prison sentences that she was forced to impose for drug crimes. In 2007, Burnes left the bench to serve for more than two groundbreaking years as Massachusetts Insurance Commissioner. 

“I was shocked. I was saying, ‘How can you leave the Superior Court?’” says Ball. “I’m telling you, Nonnie could have been chief if she’d wanted to; she could have been on the Supreme Judicial Court. What I realize now is that she was off to her next adventure.” 

In her role as state commissioner, Burnes deregulated the car insurance industry to introduce competition that made rates more affordable for drivers—an act requiring “real courage,” according to Governor Deval Patrick, who called the initiative a “central success” of his administration.

It was at Northeastern that Burnes found a long-term partner in pursuing larger reform. She served as a trustee from 2000 to 2010, helping to guide the university through its fundamental transition to become a world-class research university. 

“She was incisive, inquisitive, and just so supportive of the university,” MacGillivray says. “She was no-nonsense in a lot of ways, and yet she was a warm person who really cared about people—especially people who were marginalized, who didn’t have access to opportunity.”

Burnes created Northeastern’s Public Interest Law Scholars Program, which provides financial support for law students with experience in social justice. Yountz says Burnes’s legacy includes the large number of public interest lawyers who are investing in social change because of her support. Burnes was notified last month by the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts that she would receive its Lelia J. Robinson Award for being a pioneering woman in the legal profession.

“She taught us more than just how to pursue a meaningful public interest career,” Yountz says. “She taught us how to pull together, help one another, to create a community of support.”

Nonnie and Richard would host an annual dinner in support of the students.

“The last time I saw Nonnie was at the dinner in 2020, before the [COVID-19] lockdown,” says Yountz, an immigration attorney in Boston who attended the School of Law on a Northeastern public interest law scholarship. “She pulled up a chair next to me and said, ‘I want to hear all about your life.’ And she didn’t want the watered-down version.

“So I told her about the trauma of going to the [Mexican] border, working with migrants, and the heartbreak of the family separation cases that I was managing under the Trump administration. And we talked about the reality of burnout and secondhand trauma; and she shared stories of her time on the bench, and some of the heartbreaking cases that she would hear. And that’s who Nonnie was: Someone so brilliant and so influential who was also a dear friend.”

Friends were enthralled by Burnes’s joie de vivre. She and Richard were competitive sailors as well as helicopter skiers who would be dropped off in natural, powdery environments to make their way down the mountain. She was an energetic biker and an excellent tennis player.

“The magic of the Burnes family is they were these people you’d read about—their lifestyle, the skiing and sailing,” Ball says. Yet, she adds, “They are the most down-to-earth, friendly, outgoing, no-airs people you would ever meet.”

As a judge, she would often commute from her Beacon Hill home on a Razor scooter.

“I know that she rode it in regular-person clothes,” Ball says. “But the image that every person at the courthouse talked about was of Nonnie with her black robes flying out behind her as she scooted across the Longfellow Bridge.”

Burnes expressed her larger-than-life personality in all kinds of ways. Years before it became fashionable, she dyed a portion of her gray hair while she was serving on the bench.

“Nobody did that back then,” says Ball, laughing. “She had this big patch of weird reddish-purple hair in the back of her head because one of her kids thought it would be fun.”

Services for Nonnie S. Burnes will be announced by the family at a later date.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu