On the passing of Red Burns

I’m unsure of where to begin.

I have many memories of Red, from when I was a young child running around ITP back when it was half the size, the Polaroids were non-digitized, and there was an actual library on the floor with glass bricks (that I found endlessly fascinating and odd). I remember coming back to ITP as a student, several decades later and feeling a familiar sense of place wash over me even though the floor itself looked much different.

I attribute that feeling of ‘place’ to Red. She was the rock, the constant upon which everything that became ITP was built. I’ve been touched by the outpouring of memories and eulogies over the past few days, by writers much more eloquent than I.  So I’ll stick to what I know – my own story.

I was terrified of Red as a little kid. Her presence was so powerful to me at that age that it was overwhelming. I couldn’t form coherent sentences. I would literally run away and hide sometimes if I thought she was coming down the corridor (the library was good for that, plus the floors were creaky even back then). Through my terror, I understood that she had a lot of fondness for me. I mean, she put up with me click-clacking away on George’s typewriter (typing nonsense, but throughly enjoying the experience of it – perhaps my first lesson in good physical interface design), making a giant mess by using the spiral binding machine as a confetti maker, drawing on chalkboards (even clapping the erasers together), narrowly avoiding the rat poison, getting stuck in the bathroom, and some stories I’m sure I’ve forgotten.

When my father (the esteemed Dr. Mike Mills) left ITP for Apple in 1989 and we moved to California, I didn’t really think I’d see ITP again.  Little did I know. Luckily my dad kept in touch with Red. So when I finally came to realize that my philosophy degree wasn’t going to land me a dream job, and bartending was getting a little tiresome, I did something new at the time – I listened to my dad’s advice and applied to ITP.

Stepping into Red’s office for my interview, I realized something: I was still terrified of Red. I sweated it out through the interview (clearly Red wasn’t going to take it easy on me just because I used to be an adorable toddler), and then Red showed me around the floor herself. I didn’t realize until later that she rarely did that for visiting students. I remember seeing a demo of a glove that would generate drum sounds and sitting in on the Assistive Technology class (taught by Marianne Petit, one of the former students I undoubtedly terrorized as a little kid). I saw a demo of RAMPS by John Schimmel, and I remember thinking that everyone at ITP was a genius and they were never going to let me in, and even if they did, there was no way in heck I could do any of this stuff.

Fast forward to Applications class first semester when it was my groups turn to present. I had been working hard on my part of the project, a mock website for a user-generated tourism site for NYC (called NYSee I think). During my part of the presentation I got nervous; I hadn’t prepared what I would say, and so I kept interjecting the phrase ‘you know’ into everything I was saying.

Right after the presentation, Red walks up on stage with some papers rolled up in her hand. She comes up behind me and starts whacking me on the top of the head with the papers saying something like, “You know, you know, you know! You’ve got to stop saying you know!”.  Apparently, twenty years later I still couldn’t form complete sentences around Red. Guess what I don’t say during public talks anymore?

Like many others, Red changed my life. She was a fierce champion and a harsh critic. Red made me believe that I was capable of more than I ever dreamed. She did this for hundreds of people year after year. It seemed to me that she would always be there, in her office, door open ready to whip you back to your senses or rebuild your confidence. I always thought she was invincible; that she would laugh in Death’s face and say something like, “I’m too busy – go find somebody else.”. And Death would listen.

My guess is it’s the only argument she ever lost.

Thank you Red. For everything. I hope you know how grateful I am for all that you’ve given. The world has lost someone truly special. Rest in peace.