In politics, he started as a precinct worker, rose to ward boss, and first won election to the City Council in 1971. He was its vice president from 1977 to 1982, after Walter S. Orlinsky - caught up in a bribery scandal - resigned as president and council colleagues elected Mr. Burns to succeed him.
For more than a decade, he was chairman of the council's influential Urban Affairs Committee and held evening hearings all over town, including church basements and back alleys, to engage city neighborhoods in the process of urban renewal.
"That was a big innovation and a big deal to him," former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said last night. "When people didn't like what the urban renewal plan for their area said, he would always say, `You got to go to the meetings.'"
As he ran for mayor in 1987, Mr. Burns took some of the credit for new low-income housing for East Baltimore, Dunbar High School, East Baltimore Medical Center on Eager Street, the Hyatt Hotel and Harborplace. He once joked that he was the first black man in Baltimore to have a bank loan him $4 million - money the city used to build the medical center where a portrait of him hangs.
There is an indoor soccer arena in Canton named after him. As a councilman, he helped find millions of dollars to build Ashland Park Mews, an urban renewal home-ownership development.
Some community activists and city officials contended that he had played only a minor role in those projects.
But then-Gov. Schaefer and Mr. Orlinsky gave Mr. Burns a lot of credit, saying that he provided an important link between the City Hall and the neighborhoods that would be affected by the projects.
Mr. Burns' critics called him a rubber stamp for Mr. Schaefer. Mr. Burns rarely disagreed publicly with the mayor, but he said that was because they'd hash out any differences and work out compromises in private.
"I'd sit on bills, and he'd call me down and say, `Du, goddamn it, we've got to get this done,'" Mr. Burns said in a 1987 interview. "And I'd say, `OK, then this is the way it's going to be done.'"
During the 1987 campaign, some black leaders criticized Mr. Burns for not playing a more aggressive public role during the 1960s civil rights movement. Mr. Burns said he opted for the quieter course of trying to change things through the system.
The 'roads scholar'
Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said Mr. Burns was "a real mentor" to her when she joined the council in 1977. She recalled the warning he gave her about one of the first pieces of legislation she introduced as a freshman councilwoman - a bill calling for an 11 p.m. curfew for pet dogs.
"The first thing he said was, `Rikki, there's better lobbying for dogs than there is for people,'" she said. "`You'll never be able to get any legislation against dogs. Give up. Just don't do it.'"
Ms. Spector said she didn't follow his advice - and saw her bill go nowhere.
She supported Mr. Burns over Mr. Schmoke in 1987 and 1991. "He was the real `roads' scholar," the councilwoman said of Mr. Burns. "He knew how to get the roads fixed."
Mr. Burns was born to Selena and Clarence Burns on Sept. 13, 1918. His mother often cleaned houses for a dollar and car fare. His father, a laborer, had been a ward organizer and ardent admirer of then-Gov. Albert C. Ritchie.
"I remember when Governor Ritchie visited my father and uncle at our house," Mr. Burns said in a 1988 interview. "He used to give my two brothers, three sisters and me a dollar each. My father would let each of us have 15 cents and the rest went into the bank."