Fifteen years after the tragedy of September 11, a U of M program honoring a 9/11 hero keeps his legacy alive in a new generation of leaders
At Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, orderly rows of stark white gravestones stretch into the distance, overlooking one of the beaches where Allied troops landed on June 6, 1944, and fought to liberate France from Nazi Germany.
On a long-anticipated trip to the site, Thomas Burnett and his son, Thomas Burnett Jr.—a 1986 graduate of the U’s Carlson School of Management who had always had a strong interest in military history—were awestruck by the courage of the estimated 10,000 men who were killed, wounded, or missing in action that day.
“The Germans fired everything at them: cannons, guns, mortars,” says the elder Burnett. “[Tom Jr.] said to me, ‘Dad, I don’t know whether I would have had the courage to do what they did, to come under fire like that. Very few people would have that courage.’”
LOVE AND GRACE
On the morning of September 11, 2001, in an airborne battlefield thousands of feet above eastern Ohio and central Pennsylvania, Tom Burnett Jr. proved to himself—and to the world—that he’d been wrong to doubt his own courage.
After learning through phone conversations with family members that three hijacked planes had already hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Burnett and several of his fellow passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 quickly decided to take control of the plane to prevent it from hitting another target—likely the U.S. Capitol or White House. In a phone call to his wife from the plane, Burnett told her he’d be home for dinner that night and signed off with the last words she’d ever hear from him: “We’re going to do something.”
At 10:03 a.m., the plane crashed into an open field in rural Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board—and saving countless lives in the nation’s capital.
In the weeks and months after September 11, as his family grieved, support from all over the world gave “doing something” a whole new meaning. His mother, Beverly Burnett, still has a fat binder full of emails, cards, and letters from complete strangers as far away as Japan. Looking for a way to comfort the family, people sent quilts, hats, stuffed animals, and even money for Tom’s widow and three young daughters.
“We were the recipients of so much good will and care and well wishes,” says Tom’s older sister, Martha Burnett Pettee. “The world responded with so much love and grace. Even in the middle of all that sorrow, we had the amazing experience that people are good and want to reach out to others who are hurting.”
Before Tom Burnett Jr. was an American hero, he was a premature baby who had to be bottle-fed every hour, around the clock, for several months after his birth. He was an adventurous, outdoorsy kid who loved fishing and hunting. He was a U of M student who was serious about academics, but also had a goofy sense of humor and performed a wickedly accurate Bill Murray impression. He was a loving dad who switched to an earlier flight on September 11 so he could get home in time to talk to his twin daughters about their first day of kindergarten.
He was also a natural leader who rose up the corporate ranks to become an executive at a medical device company, where he kept busts of Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in his office to remind himself of the qualities of great leaders. “He read many biographies of historical leaders and was interested in their thinking—how they strategically led troops or people or legislatures to achieve their goals,” says Burnett Pettee.
Looking for a concrete way to continue Tom’s legacy and respond to the outpouring of good will from so many people across the world, his family formed the Tom Burnett Family Foundation, which supports his passion for citizenship, leadership, and education. Among the programs it funds at the University of Minnesota are a scholarship for Carlson School students and the Tom Burnett Advanced Leadership Program, in which 12 to 15 seniors from various U of M colleges come together for eight weeks of after-class weekly meetings to develop their leadership skills.
Fata Acquoi, ’16, was just 7 years old on September 11, 2001. But as a participant in the Tom Burnett Advanced Leadership Program this past spring, she feels a profound connection to what happened that day. “Tom saved people’s lives so generations to come wouldn’t have to experience the tragedy of losing someone,” says the double major in political science and sociology of law. “That’s something I’ll take with me from this program: doing something that’s bigger than you.”
In the program, a group of students who have been nominated for the program because of their strong leadership skills (Acquoi, for example, was president of her sorority, chair of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, and president of the student group Black Motivated Women) meets one evening a week with Aaron Asmundson, assistant director for leadership education and development at the U. He introduces a discussion topic each week—for example, what it means for leaders to be authentic—and encourages participants to share their stories, thoughts, and questions related to that subject.
Each topic is paired with a challenge. One week, students were given 20 minutes to leave the classroom and perform a “courageous act,” defined however they chose. Acquoi, who knew that other students saw her as a calm, capable leader who wasn’t afraid of anything, posted on social media—for all her friends and classmates to see—a brutally honest list of things that scare her. “I felt so uncomfortable,” she says. “But the response was positive. People said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you feel this way. I feel that way, too.’ It showed me that as a leader, I need to be more vulnerable and open.”
Asmundson, who has been leading the program for most of its 10-year history, says Acquoi’s experience is not unusual. By the time they reach their senior year, many student leaders have spent so much energy focusing on their achievements that they haven’t stopped to ask themselves who they are as leaders and why it matters. “It’s fun to see a group of highly accomplished students learn to be courageous enough to be themselves,” he says.
Students are paired with mentors, who meet with them once a week—often discussing the week’s topic and how it plays out in their own lives and careers. Eric White, a senior financial analyst for Bluestem Brands who participated in the program in 2013 and served as a mentor for one of this year’s participants, says the mentor relationship is a crucial part of the program. He often had advice for his mentee from his own experiences in the business world, but he also learned a lot in the process.
“I didn’t always have the answers, and he didn’t always have the answers, so we would talk and try to figure it out together,” says White. “I learned as much from him as he learned from me.”
LEGACY OF LEADERSHIP
Tom’s younger sister, Mary Jurgens, says the leadership program is exactly what her brother would have wanted. “He would have been so inspired and excited,” she says, “because that’s what we all want to do: we want to influence someone who will then add their own ideas and inspiration to help the next person, who will help the next person.”
Acquoi, who grew up in Liberia during the country’s two civil wars, hopes to do exactly that. She’s currently working as a political organizer while she applies to graduate school to study human rights. “I’m doing it for the people who have been abused by genocides and civil wars and don’t feel like they’ve ever gotten any justice,” she says. “This program challenged me to act on the skills I have—to be the leader who Tom would want to see in the world.”
Amy Sitze is editor of Legacy magazine.