The heroes Bloomington students often study are long-lost legends from forgotten eras in history books. During the past week, though, their lessons about an ordinary man's heroic mission couldn't have hit much closer to home.
In recognition of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the city's schools have honored former Jefferson High School football star Thomas Burnett Jr. He was one of the passengers on board the hijacked United Flight 93 headed for a Washington, D.C., target until a passenger revolt he helped lead foiled the hijackers' plans and crashed the plane instead into a Pennsylvania field.
Since then, Bloomington hasn't forgotten Burnett. In every school, memory of him lives on.
Between two football practice fields, former teammates created a memorial to honor the 1981 Jefferson High graduate. The hallways of the high school display photos of Burnett and his retired jersey. Each year, Oak Grove Middle School students volunteer for a Thomas Burnett Day of Service in May.
And during the past week, students district-wide have honored Burnett in a variety of ways -- from kids planting homemade "pinwheels for peace" to teens learning about Burnett and the 39 other passengers and crew members killed aboard Flight 93.
"Most kids, when you mention Thomas Burnett, know something about his story," said Rich Bird, who taught and coached Burnett and still substitute teaches at Jefferson.
To Burnett's sisters, who live in the Twin Cities, and his parents, who now live in Northfield, seeing the schools continue to honor him is heartwarming, said his mother, Beverly.
"Hopefully it inspires others to do something in their life," added his sister, Mary Margaret Jurgens of Excelsior.
Her brother is best known for his last phone call to his wife, when he told her "we're going to do something" just before the passengers fought back against the hijackers. That, Jurgens said, was in character for her brother. She has kept hearing about incidents during his life that prove that point.
When he was a star high school quarterback, for instance, he took the time one day to stop and play catch with a junior high boy who later told the Burnett family he never forgot the day the older teen gave him a chance.
"You never know when your actions could impact someone greatly," Jurgens said. "What's really touched me the last 10 years is all of the people who have reached out to tell me about all the stuff he did on the side. It wasn't just that [action on 9/11]; it was how he lived his life."
Zest for life
Before that fateful day, Burnett had lived a life similar to today's Bloomington students. He attended Ridgeview Elementary, then Olson Middle School. At Jefferson, he was the quarterback on the football team. Sporting jersey No. 11 and then No. 10, Burnett led the Jaguars to the state finals in 1980.
When Bird, his former coach and senior English teacher, learned that the young man he knew as a quiet, mature leader had helped lead the passenger revolt on Flight 93, he wasn't surprised.
"That was very consistent with his character," he said. "He had a zest for life."
Burnett attended St. John's University, where he played football until an injury shortened his athletic career. He transferred to and graduated from the University of Minnesota before moving to California to work for a medical device company, where he was senior vice president and chief operating officer.
His legacy lives on
On Sept. 11, 2001, the 38-year-old boarded Flight 93, bound for San Francisco from Newark, N.J. Moments before it crashed into the Pennsylvania field, Burnett called his wife, telling her that passengers were going to try to take back control of the plane. He was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, where his family visited Sunday after attending mass in Bloomington.
To honor him, the family plans to start more service days in the Twin Cities. Scholarships in his memory also are set up at Jefferson and Kennedy high schools, the U of M, St. John's and Pepperdine University.
"Tommy would be very proud of it," his mother said. "He loved to see the young people [about to graduate] and listen to their goals."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141