Doug Burris once said, “I will be the toughest S.O.B. MS has ever messed with,” Miami Beach Senior High Fine Arts Department head Nina Duval recounted on Sunday at a Beach High auditorium packed with family, friends, alumni and colleagues of the late music teacher.
The man Duval was speaking of, Clark Douglas Burris, faced his challenge with multiple sclerosis for more than 43 years. He founded Miami Beach High’s Rock Ensemble in 1972, guided the program to national prominence, numerous awards and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame stage in Cleveland. He inspired the more than 600 students who rocked through his ranks to find significant careers in the music industry.
Many returned to the school Sunday to pay tribute to Burris at Rockin’ the Universe: A Musical Celebration of Life, a three-hour multimedia program produced by a team of six. Burris died on Jan. 28 of complications from multiple sclerosis. He was 73.
For many, he was a father figure. He is an inspiration for all of us.
Rabbi Jory Lang, in his invocation and eulogy for Beach High music teacher Doug Burris
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Some of his students went on to score national Top 10 pop hits, as ’80s pop group Exposé did with Seasons Change. Still others, like pianist Adam Chester and guitarist Fernando Perdomo, work today alongside pop and rock stars Elton John and Jakob Dylan, respectively. And others, like Frankie Trullenque, the event’s producer and emcee, and technical producer Michael McNamee work in producing, marketing, advertising and sound engineering.
“Mr. Burris is an iconic symbol of all things are possible,” Trullenque said.
At the event, Exposé’s Ann Curless appeared in a video montage to honor the man “who started it all.” Burris’ nieces Sara and Claire Burris offered a tender rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Chester, along with Eve Nelson, had perhaps the most appropriate number of all as the duo pianists played Elton John’s dramatic classic from 1973, Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.
“I had cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma. Doug got me through a very difficult time,” said Chester, a class of 1981 Rock Ensemble member. “And when I would speak to Doug, I understood how not only lucky I was, but how grateful I was and always will be to know someone who looked challenges straight in the eye and defeated them. I loved Doug enough to call him once every month at least since the day I graduated Beach High.
“I'll miss that presence,” he said. “But it will live on in my heart and the hearts of my children who feel as though they know him through me.”
All because a musician from Highland Falls, New York, announced during the era of Vietnam, Richard Nixon and You’re So Vain that he was going to create a rock ensemble class at Beach High. Burris faced opposition early on from some teachers who didn’t go for Burris’ methods, Duval said in her address. She inspired images of Glee’s fictional nemesis Sue Sylvester when she spoke of these “annoying staff” members of yesteryear Beach High who didn’t take kindly to a public school teacher promoting music that “was too loud,” who promoted the “vulgarity of rock ’n’ roll.”
However, former Miami-Dade School Board Chairman Solomon Stinson told the audience Sunday about meeting Burris in the early 1980s. He was immediately impressed with the teacher’s passion and depth of knowledge.
When Burris was to be surplussed in the mid-1980s Stinson took action.
“I called the principal and said, ‘Are you familiar with the detention center in Homestead?’” Stinson said, drawing chuckles from an audience of about 800. “I called Mr. Burris and told him, ‘For as long as you are teaching, you’ll have a job at Miami Beach Senior High School.’”