ALBANY, Ga. -- When Dr. John Burns got the call from the executive director of the Licensed Professional Counselors of Georgia organization, he thought he was being pranked.
But Gale Macke's news was no joke.
Burns, who retired from his position as executive director of the Albany Area Community Service Board in 2005 after more than 35 years as a mental health professional, had been named the American Mental Health Counselors Association's 2010 Mental Health Counselor of the Year.
"That call was a shocker," said Burns, whose "retirement" includes consulting work with local mental health professionals and an adjunct professorship with Troy University's psychology and education department. "As I told Gale when she called, there are just so many more deserving people in the field.
"I told her I would humbly accept the award if I were allowed to do so on behalf of the many counselors who go unrecognized, the ones who are out there in the trenches every day. And I also told her I wanted to acknowledge that the real honor should go to God."
Gay Bera, the chairwoman of the AMHCA Awards Committee, lauded Burns for the respect he has gained among his peers.
"I'm not sure where to start to tell you about John Burns," Bera said at the awards ceremony. "Every once in a while you meet someone who is humble, quiet, a man of his word. ... It takes time to realize that this person has counseled hundreds, changed peoples' lives in such a positive way that family members and the community see and get the benefits.
"Dr. John Burns embodies the meaning behind Mental Health Counselor of the Year."
Burns decided not to attend the AMHCA's annual conference in Boston for the awards presentation July 17, but officials there SKYPED him at his Albany home.
"When I told the folks I was not going to come to Boston for the ceremony, they said they'd SKYPE me," Burns laughed. "I had no idea what they were talking about. I asked if it would hurt.
"They sent the equipment down and told us how to set it up, and when they called I told them to be sure and keep the camera high. I had on my coat and tie, but below I was wearing shorts and flip-flops."
People who know Burns best appreciate his fun-loving side as well as the professionalism that has marked his distinguished career. Annette Bowling, the executive director of the Albany Advocacy Resource Center, said Burns is a champion of some of the region's most vulnerable citizens.
"John and I have worked together very closely with individuals who have mental and dependency issues," Bowling said. "He's a very knowledgeable person in his field and a very caring professional. He's been a passionate advocate for people whose needs are so great."
Burns, who received his undergraduate degree in pre-law from Georgia College in Milledgeville, made a dramatic change in his career plans after serving as an attendant at Central State Hospital there. Working on a ward that included veterans of the Vietnam War, he said the daily misery he witnessed led him to rethink his future.
After receiving his doctorate in education in the field of counseling and educational psychology from Mississippi State University, he accepted a position with a six-county mental health center in Rome. He worked his way up to assistant mental health director at the facility before being recruited to come to Albany as director of the eight-county Albany Area Mental Health Center (now the Albany Area Public Service Board).
"It was a difficult adjustment; (Burns's wife) Joan was teaching in Rome, and I came here to become chief executive officer of a facility with a $10 million budget and 400 employees," Burns said. "Also, the future location of our facility was nothing but a piece of dirt at the time. I was heavily involved in getting that facility off the ground, every detail down to which way the doors should swing.
"But my time in Albany was so rewarding. I had the opportunity to help people who had no voice. On any given year during my time in Albany, more than 15,000 people would come through our program."
Burns's tireless work on behalf of those voiceless thousands was the basis for his honor by the national Mental Health Counselors Association.
"I was thrilled for John," Joan Burns said. "He's such a humble person, and he's always been one who is an advocate for those who can't do for themselves."
Macke said Burns is the embodiment of her organization's ideals.
"John is just this absolutely amazing professional and human being," the Georgia LPCA's executive director said. "Through my position, as I've moved across the state I've heard so many moving personal stories about John. Whether I was in the state capital, Valdosta, Thomasville or anywhere else in the state, I kept hearing these amazing stories.
"And even though I'd worked with John, I never would have known these things because he never talked about them. He quietly goes about doing his job; that's just the kind of person he is."
While the recent national honor is a first for Burns, he has been recognized by faculty, staff and students at Berry College, by the state Department of Human Resources, by Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and by Dougherty County Superior Court.
Burns and his and Joan's daughter, Joan-Marie Barcus, are also recipients of the Dr. Martin Luther King Dream Award.
Among the many organizations and associations of which Burns is a member is the American Association of Christian Counselors.
"My life is like that song -- 'I was lost, then I was found' -- my spiritual life is the most important part," Burns said. "It's not about me; all I do is about God. So many people measure their lives by what they accumulate, but it hit me one day that once you pass on and people look at your awards and certificates, they're going to say, 'What a beautiful picture frame that's in.'
"I've been fortunate that God put a lot of good people in front of me. They are the nightlights that cleared the way for me. And I'd like to say thank you to my nightlights."
That, Bowling says of her colleague, is vintage John Burns.
"He's always done his work very quietly, behind the scenes," she said. "A lot of people like John never get recognized. But he's always just gone about his business, changing one life at a time."