Richard Irving Burnham died peacefully on April 26, 2022 in Newport, Rhode Island. He was a diplomat, banker, and philanthropist, whose greatest loves were his wife Monty of fifty years and his children and grandchildren. Born on February 20, 1936 in Roscoe, NY, to Marjorie Stout Burnham and Irving Holcomb Burnham, he graduated from Amherst College in 1958 with a degree in history, which remained a passion throughout his life. Upon graduation from Harvard Law School in 1961, Burnham entered the U.S. Foreign Service, with his first posting at the American Embassy in Paris, perhaps the most pleasant location for a tall and handsome young diplomat in the early 1960s. He spoke French fluently with a perfect accent, and made life-long friends, who later hosted his children during their travels and studies abroad. Burnham was Third Secretary at the Embassy in Paris from January 1962 to September 1963, and then Vice Consul in Bordeaux, from September 1963 to May 1964. Near the beginning of his tenure, he was responsible for managing the outpouring of grief and support in Bordeaux following the assassination of JFK, Jr. Burnham returned to the DC area in 1964 for training in the Vietnam Advisors Program at the Foreign Service Institute, and at the US Army Special Warfare School in Fort Bragg. He left for Vietnam in June 1965 to become the Assistant US Mission Advisor in the Kien Hoa Province. At headquarters in Saigon, he worked on the pacification policy for South Vietnam. He studied counterinsurgency and intelligence coordination in the central provinces of Vietnam along with John Paul Van, and was an advisor to the CIA Provincial Cadre Training Center at Vung Tau. In June of 1967, Ambassador Komer named Burnham as first Senior Advisor to the Province Chief of Kien Hoa Province and Chief of the Provincial Advisory Team, which included the military advisory group and a number of civilian advisors. His stories of this period focused on the beauty of Vietnam and entertaining moments in Saigon where he had unusual pets (an enormous pig and a boa constrictor) and extraordinary friends who relished life together despite the harrowing war. In 1968, following a short period at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, VA, Burnham left the Foreign Service to become an investment banker at Morgan Stanley in New York. He met Monty Watkins at Bailey’s Beach in Newport, RI, at the pool bar during a party she had organized at the time of a chamber music festival. Within months, they travelled together to Europe and he proposed in Rome. They married in January 1972 at St. James Church in New York. Burnham joined the International Finance Corporation in 1973 where he worked for 25 Years, retiring as the Global Head of Syndication. He procured essential funding for numerous businesses and projects throughout the developing world. He travelled extensively for work, but made family life and friends his priority. Mealtimes were sacred, and he cooked breakfast for the household every morning, with “Granddaddy eggs” a highly anticipated staple of his repertoire. Burnham loved dogs, spoiling his favorite pug Winnie with bits of cheese after dinner. He was an avid golfer in Newport and Washington, DC. He and Monty enjoyed traveling together, most often to London and Paris, where he competed in chess tournaments and visited old friends. They sponsored Vietnamese immigrants to the DC area and returned to Vietnam several times, most recently in 1998. Burnham’s philanthropy focused on historic collections. He was an active board member and treasurer at the Redwood Library in the early 2000’s. At the Newport Historical Society, he became Board President and later President Emeritus of the Board of Directors and was responsible for the creation of the Buchanan-Burnham Summer Scholars in Public History Program. He was enormously proud of his son John’s accomplishments as a real estate developer and his daughter Helen’s exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His grandchildren Jack, Brynn, George, Wesley, and Finnegan “furnished him with great resources for happiness.” A descendant of Thomas Burnham (1623-1694) who emigrated as a teenager from England in 1635 to settle in Ipswich, MA; of Captain Wesley Burnham (1747-1835), the Revolutionary War Privateer; and Captain Irving Holcomb (1833-1919), who served in the Civil War; Burnham maintained the resilient spirit of a pioneer. He never complained of pain even in his last days and maintained the gentle, dignified, and kindly demeanor familiar to all who knew him.
Burnham leaves behind his wife Monty (Metcalf Watkins), son John and his wife Morgan McKenna Burnham, daughter Helen and her husband George Jacobs, and his five grandchildren. The youngest of three children born during the Great Depression, Burnham was pre-deceased only recently by his sister, the weaver Nellie Elizabeth Burnham, and his brother Frank Westley Burnham. He cherished his niece Donna Burnham Siegel and nephew Derek Burnham, his grand-nieces, and his honorary nephew Tarleton Harvin Watkins III.
Services will be held on a date to be determined at Christ Church, Georgetown, where Richard Burnham was a long-serving member of the Vestry. In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the Newport Historical Society. https://newporthistory.org/donations/
Source: O’Neill Hayes Funeral Home