Remembrance for Joseph I. Burns, Founder MBK Engineers

Sept. 23, 2021

In Remembrance of Joe Burns, Founder, MBK Engineers by Gilbert Cosio, Jr.

As a young, newly graduated, engineer working in San Francisco for the largest engineering and construction company in the world, it did not take me long to recognize that my first job out of college would not last very long; a big corporation was not for me. When I left that job and returned to school to start a graduate program, I was looking for a student assistant job and a professor recommended I contact Murray, Burns & Kienlen (now MBK Engineers). I started at MBK in January 1984, and I assumed the job would be a steppingstone to my next career move. However, from day 1, the family atmosphere created by Joe Burns and Don Kienlen had me convinced that MBK was the company I was built for. I had no idea that a company built with a foundation of grace and devotion to its employees and clients even existed, but that’s what I found at MBK, and Joe Burns was the key figure that would shape the remainder of my career.

The key to Joe was that he looked at MBK as a part of his family, and he made it apparent that each employee was loved as a member of the family. Early in my career at MBK, Joe and I worked on water resource plans for what is now known as the Truckee Meadows Water Authority. He and I would drive to Reno twice a month as part of our work for TMWA. I didn’t realize it at the time, but during those drives I was learning about life, and about being a professional engineer through my discussions with Joe. Looking back now, I realize those discussions were more about life. We talked mostly about our families, but now I realize that what I learned from Joe during those drives directly impacted to how I would later manage MBK both as a shareholder, and eventually as president of the firm.

In the late 1980s, long before cell phones became the norm, those drives back from Reno always involved a stop at the rest area at the summit along I-80. Joe always stopped there to call home (using his AT&T phone card and a pay phone) and tell his wife Maxine that he was 90 minutes away. Talk about a lesson that would benefit me in my young marriage! Speaking of my marriage, my wife and I were married in April 1985. When I realized I would not have enough vacation time to fit in our wedding and a honeymoon, I approached Joe to see if I could take additional time off without pay. Without missing a beat, his response was that as part of the family I would get paid for my time off as a wedding gift from the company.

Joe was a top-notch engineer and he wanted those he mentored to be the same. He was known to pull out a report, point to a number, and ask, “where did this come from?”, essentially making sure we understood the information, and could replicate it in the future. Many times, he would give out an assignment, knowing we were not aware of all that had to be done, but making us think through the problem and ask questions in order to get the job done correctly. Much of my early work at MBK involved flood control along the Sacramento River. We had an ongoing contract with the state Attorney General’s office to represent the state as an expert in flood claims. When I started at MBK we were dealing with issues following the 1983 flood. I was heavily involved with the 1986 flood. As part of my mentoring, not only did I have to know about the “flood numbers” such as flow, and stage; I also had to know what they meant in real life along the river. At one point I could name every bend in the Sacramento River and what it looked like at flood stage. However, this was not a tough homework assignment, rather it was just the result of working with Joe and observing how he viewed the river, and the characteristics and ramifications of flooding. Joe would represent clients as an expert witness, and his best advice to me was to tell the truth. It sounds simple, but if you have ever been an expert witness, it is not as easy as you think. MBK’s number 1 core value is to tell the truth about water. As an expert witness for the state, and for our other clients, Joe never wanted to be known as a “hired gun”. His motto was, “tell your client the truth, and if they don’t like it, they won’t put you on the witness stand”.

Finally, the bulk of my career has been working in the Delta as a District Engineer for many reclamation districts. I would not have taken that path if it were not for Joe Burns. When I started at MBK, one of my mentors was John Wright. John had worked a full career at DWR, which ended in 1978, having worked almost entirely as a levee inspector and engineer. In 1984 when I joined MBK, John was 65 years old, and he really wanted to retire. However, our Delta clients really relied on John. In 1988 John decided he needed to cut back on work. For some reason (I believe now that it was the confidence Joe Burns instilled in me) I volunteered to take over the Delta clients for MBK. Joe looked me in the eyes – only 4 years of experience at MBK under my belt and only 30 years old at the time – and granted me that responsibility. I don’t know why Joe had so much confidence in me, but I will be forever grateful to him.

Joe died on September 3, 2021, at the age of 95. His days of working full time were long behind him, but he never lost sight of his family. Every year, my wife and I would look forward to a Christmas card, hand-made by Joe’s wife Maxine, with a personal note of well wishes included. I will forever be indebted to Joe Burns, not only for my career, but also for how I learned to be a better husband and father.