William Keeler Burns

June 20, 1943 ~ November 1, 2019 (age 76)


William K. “Bill” Burns was born in Philadelphia, Pa. on June 20, 1943 to Flora Stickling Burns and Thomas Edward Burns, Jr.  He was the third son and youngest brother of Bob and Tom.

Bill is survived by his three children, Eric, Laura, and Greg, and six grandchildren: Wyatt (15), Penelope (12), Bailey (12), Kirsten (11), Finian (10), and Lindsey (9).  His wife of 53 years, Wendy Duguid Burns, sadly predeceased Bill in May of 2019.

Growing up in Drexel Hill, Pa., Bill graduated from Upper Darby High School two years ahead of his future wife, Wendy Duguid.  Bill and Wendy married in 1965, initially residing in Cambridge, Mass. before moving to Alexandria, Va. in 1971, where they lived for the remainder of their lives.  Bill and Wendy also spent much of their summers on Orr’s Island, Maine, and were active in both communities. They were both active members of the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church in Alexandria, Va.

Bill received his B.S. degree in Engineering Physics from Cornell University in 1965 and earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Applied Physics from Harvard University in 1967 and 1971.  Bill rowed on the crew team at Cornell, and while at Harvard, he won the Head of the Charles in the double scull category.

After graduation, Bill initially worked for the consulting firm Arthur D. Little before joining the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. in 1971 as a research physicist, ultimately becoming head of the Optical Waveguide Section in the Optical Sciences Division.  Bill worked at NRL for 28 years.

Bill’s professional career focused on fiber optics, specializing in gyroscope technology and the development of fiber optic modulators.  He received numerous awards for his inventions and publications, with over 52 patents (plus 5 pending) and 250 professional journal publications and presentations.  Bill’s research received more than 4,000 citations in peer-reviewed literature. He was a Fellow of the Optical Society of America and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Bill was a pioneer in the development of integrated optical waveguides used in fiber optic communications and sensors.  He developed one of the first polarization independent modulators and the first planar waveguide to fiber couplers widely used in telecommunications.  He developed the first long term stable inertial quality fiber gyro which is manufactured by numerous companies today as well as the most precise fiber gyro to date.  This work was recognized by the Institute of Navigation, who awarded him the T.L. Thurlow Award, given for outstanding invention for navigation uses.

In 1999, he joined Codeon Corp. (later acquired by Covega) of Columbia, Md., continuing his work on fiber optic modulators used in the telecommunications industry.  In 2004 he joined Photonics Systems, Inc. of Needham, Mass., where he worked until his retirement in 2012.

Throughout his life, Bill loved the outdoors.  In Maine, he loved to sail and was an active member of the Orr’s Bailey Yacht Club, racing his sailboat throughout the summer.  Bill also loved hiking and camping, stemming from his days as a Boy Scout, where he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout.  Among his favorite mountains were Old Rag (Va.), Mount Washington (N.H.), and Mount Katahdin (Maine), all of which he hiked many times.  Bill spent his later years backpacking and hiking throughout the National Parks of California, Oregon, and Washington with his son, Greg.

Bill was diagnosed with dementia in 2012, which later developed into Alzheimer’s disease. Wendy cared for him at home until his move to Thetford House (Alexandria, Va.) in 2017.  He resided at Sunrise Senior Living in Mount Vernon from 2018 until his passing in 2019.

Bill will be remembered as a kind, gentle, generous, and good-natured father and friend.  He loved his family, greatly enjoyed his time with his grandchildren, and loved to share his appreciation of the outdoors with everyone he met.  He will be greatly missed.

Contributions in Bill’s memory can be made to the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church Endowment Fund or the Sierra Club.

To send flowers to William's family, please visit our floral section.


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Mount Vernon Unitarian Church Endowment Fund/Hill of Dreams Legacy Circle
1909 Windmill Lane, Alexandria VA 22307
Tel: 1-703-765-5950

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