Dr. Van Robinson Burnham with grandson Denson Hollis, a UM development officer

(OXFORD, Miss.) – Retired family physician Dr. Van Robinson Burnham of Clarksdale has invested many hours passing on his love of archaeology and history to his own grandchildren, as well as ensuring that others have the resources to explore and learn from these fields.

Burnham is continuing that commitment with a $100,000 gift to the University of Mississippi. Half of the gift is designated for UM’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology to honor Jay Johnson, director of the Center for Archaeological Research. Burnham also is directing $45,000 of the gift to support the new Center for Civil War Research and $5,000 to Ole Miss Track.

“I’ve been planning to provide a gift to Ole Miss for some time now,” Burnham said. “This gift is meant to honor Dr. Jay Johnson for his friendship and his great help with local archeology. The gift to the new center honors my Civil War ancestors, including my grandfather and great-grandfather. I also wanted to provide assistance to track because I follow this sport at Ole Miss and ran track during my high school years.”

Denson Hollis, the grandson of Burnham and a university development officer, helped set up the designation of funds. 

“This gift is a great way for my grandfather to further his most passionate interests at a place he loves so dearly – Ole Miss,” said Hollis. “My grandfather used to take my two older brothers and me to American Indian sites in Coahoma County to dig for Indian artifacts. We all developed some archaeological knowledge from spending time with him.”

Johnson, a professor of anthropology, and Burnham met around 30 years ago when Johnson was conducting archaeological work in the Mississippi Delta.

“Dr. Burnham is a patron of archaeology in Mississippi in the real sense of the word,” Johnson said. “He has been a major figure in archaeology of the Mississippi Delta and served on the board of directors of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History for several decades. This remarkable gift is just the latest chapter in a lifetime spent supporting archaeologists working in the region.”

Burnham was named Mississippi Lay Archaeologist of the Year in 2005, served as president of the board of trustees for the North Delta Museum for 23 years and helped persuade Coahoma County officials to provide new headquarters for local archeology interests in Clarksdale. He also previously endowed the Barbara B. Burnham Memorial Fund, which honors his late wife, to promote travel and continuing education opportunities for the MDHA archaeological staff.

His gift to the university fills a pressing need for professors and students.

“For us, the timing of this generous gift could not be better,” Johnson said. “The Center for Archaeological Research at the university was able to purchase a full complement of instruments used in conducting geophysical survey as the result of a NASA grant nearly 10 years ago. These instruments – including ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers and conductivity meters – allow us to map the location of prehistoric structures before we dig, which has transformed the way we work. The funds provided by Dr. Burnham will be used to refurbish or replace our well-used instruments, allowing us to continue to explore these advanced techniques and to train students in the use of these instruments.”

John Neff, director of the Center for Civil War Research, said the importance of the Burnham gift could not be overstated.

“We are so grateful for this generous and magnanimous gift – it is absolutely overwhelming,” Neff said. “We have an ambitious agenda planned for the year, including an inaugural event this spring and a larger Civil War conference in the fall, sponsored jointly by the center and the Porter Fortune Symposium. These funds will not only allow us to fulfill this year’s plans but also permit us to expand upon them and carry the center well into the foreseeable future. In these times of budget restraint, the center is almost entirely dependent on such generosity; we simply could not function without wonderful supporters like Dr. Van Burnham.”

Joe Walker, head coach of the track teams, also shared the impact of Burnham’s gift.

“We are raising funds to upgrade and modernize our team room. Dr. Burnham’s gift is the most substantial that we have ever received in any of our track fund-raising efforts,” Walker said. “I was overwhelmed and most appreciative of his generosity. It is great to know he believes in what we are doing enough to be so generous.”  

Burnham’s relationship with the university has spanned more than 70 years.

“Ole Miss gave me the opportunity to achieve my goal of becoming a physician,” he said. “I owe so much to Ole Miss for my education. Living in Clarksdale, which is close to Oxford, has enabled me to remain closely associated with the university I love.”

The Ruleville native attended Sunflower Junior College before coming to Ole Miss, where he graduated in 1941. He earned his medical degree from Northwestern University in 1943 and completed residencies at Pennsylvania Hospital. He served in the Pacific Theater as a U.S. Navy lieutenant before returning to practice medicine in the Delta. Burnham ministered to the health needs of patients for 60 years until he retired in 2003, and he also was chief of staff at Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center.

The physician holds memberships in the 50-Year Club of the American and Mississippi medical associations and is a member of the Southern Medical Association, as well as a number of local medical associations. He is a fellow in the American Academy of Family Practice, as well as a member of Mensa and Intertel.

Burnham, his wife, their three children – Babs Burnham Sweatt and R. Conner Burnham of Clarksdale and Van R. “Bubba” Burnham III of Sumner – and five grandchildren all attended Ole Miss.

“Some of my greatest memories come from my grandfather bringing me to Oxford for Ole Miss football games,” Hollis said. “He is one of the main reasons I came to Ole Miss. He has always been a tremendous role model for me, and one day I hope to impact my community and Mississippi like he has.”

Tina Hahn