The S.B. Questionnaire: Pat Burns

Talking Generosity with Baseball Commissioner and Urban Farmer Pat Burns

Pat Burns at his Westside home in Santa Barbara
Paul Wellman

This time of year, you will undoubtedly stumble upon a viewing of Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life, which tells the story of George Bailey, who loves his town and is willing to do everything for its residents.

Santa Barbara has its own version of George: Pat Burns, who is the commissioner for baseball’s California Collegiate League and a part-time manager of Louie’s California Bistro at the Upham Hotel. But what makes Pat wonderful is the work he considers his main purpose.

“The intentional part of my life is what I do at home,” he tells me, explaining that he runs a small urban farm and gives everything that he grows away. “What can a person do to help our community?” he asks me. “If everybody grew food at their home and distributed to our friends and neighbors, all of our problems would go away. Does that sound idealistic?”

Pat grew up in Arcadia near the Santa Anita Racetrack, whose horse races he could hear from his yard. His older brother died when Pat was in high school, and that spun his world around. “Since I don’t hear God in my ear, I felt inferior,” he explains. “That was my beginning of my exploration of prayer.”

He came to Santa Barbara to study Christianity at Westmont College, and then traveled for five years through New Zealand, Fiji, Thailand, Malaysia, and China. When he would return to Santa Barbara, he’d work at restaurants such as Brophy’s, Paradise Café, and Piatti’s to support his travels. He also worked as a house framer and commercial fisherman.

In 1992, six years after graduating, he started coaching baseball at SBCC and moved on to UCSB and Westmont. In 1993, he became an assistant coach for the semipro Santa Barbara Foresters, which he did for 15 years. During that time, he helped start the California Collegiate League, which involves both amateur and college players. It’s now the second most prestigious league of its kind, with two to three players per year moving onto the major league. “There’s only about five to 10 people in the country who do what I do,” says Pat, who also runs three lunch and two dinner services each week at Louie’s.

But his most rewarding work is growing food and giving it away. Among other crops, he grows tomatoes, apricots, and peaches, canning about 60 quarts of peaches each year. “I’ve gotten to know my neighbors because of that,” he explains. “I make a point of giving away food to people I don’t know. It’s an intentional practice to love my neighbors. It’s a nebulous thing to love your neighbor. How do you do that? I do it with food.”

Pat Burns answers the Proust Questionnaire.

Where would you most like to live?

Exactly where I do. The house I rent in the neighborhood I’ve lived in for the past 20-plus years in this city, in this state, and in this country, is so integral to the simple and extremely rich life I enjoy. I would be a fool to want something different.

Would I like to own a house in Montecito, Hope Ranch, or Lake Como and have the same simple and rich life with the same neighbors? Of course. But what are the chances of that happening? I’d argue impossible. The only place to experience true happiness is right where we are.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Giving people something of mine they say they need when they ask for it without question and with no strings attached, assuming it is really mine to give and I believe giving it to them will not harm them.

What is your current state of mind?

I am more peaceful, content, and excited these days than ever. Yet I am more perplexed by the perpetuation of ignorance in our society than ever. I am certain many people are just as perplexed about our society, but I am dubious whether people know happiness is felt through practicing abstract truths in concert with others, not practicing personal enrichment at the expense of others.

What do you like most about your job?

Since I have two full-time jobs, a couple of year-round preoccupations, an overarching and intentional set of disciplines, and a foundation of relationships that hold my life together, the one thing I like most about my jobs is that they have been integrated into a single whole. I am not any one of my individual jobs, but my jobs allow me to be who I practice to be. I never have to act differently at work than I do at home. I like that the most.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Detecting the presence of God in the ordinary moments of the day, especially when a person I am interacting with detects Him at the same time. Only once have I detected the physical presence of God — I was walking alone after lunch across State Street on the Carrillo Street crosswalk a year or so ago — but, spiritually, I am filled with perfect happiness almost daily when I interact with someone who senses God is bombarding our interaction with a love we have no chance manifesting ourselves. All it takes is acknowledging His presence — love pounds on our hearts and we feel the emotion, happiness.

What is your greatest fear?

Besides sharks and public speaking? I will myself to go swimming in the ocean and I will walk to the podium if I am called, so I don’t consider them that great. I try to not fear anything. Fearing something only makes that fearful thing more probable.

Who do you most admire?

Jesus. Someone occupies the apex of human achievement, someone is the most important person who has ever lived, someone is the smartest person of all time, and that someone is who I admire most and turn to for advice. He is the most relevant.

What is the quality you most like in people?

Strength — physical, emotional, and mental — in women; sacrifice and chivalry in men.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?


What do you most value in friends?

That they are mine and that, with certainty, they will be that way forever.

What is your most marked characteristic?

I hope it is being able to love at first sight. I try to practice this intentionally and hope it will be something I do without thinking.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“It’s a great invention.” “Can I offer you some [whatever is ripe in the garden]?” “I’d argue against that.”

Which talent would you most like to have?

As long as it wouldn’t affect my current situation, I’d like to be able to run like Earl Campbell.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

The ignorance of youth. Much too often I am haunted by a vision of what an idiot I have been.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Understanding the true meaning of the word “gift.” I still consider the moment I comprehended this word to be the most mentally, emotionally, and physically challenging thing I have ever attempted. Everything I was before that moment worked against my efforts to understand what really is a gift and, once I surrendered to the truth of it, I was transformed from simply a material being into what I consider a hybrid material-spiritual being.

What is your most treasured possession?

Assuming, if all my possessions were to be lost in a disaster, my loved ones were perfectly safe, the family photos and my important documents were secure, and I had to choose the one thing I would risk going into the fray to retrieve, my most treasured possession is the set of dishes my mother willed to me when she passed.

There are so many lessons and memories associated with those dishes — sharing food is such an important theme in my life — and they are still the most beautiful ordinary things I have ever owned, they would be the first thing I would consider risking my life to save. I want those dishes to stand as a testimony to the love my mother fostered and for our family to foster going forward, forever. I use them daily.

Who makes you laugh the most?

My buddy Wayne, who never shows up without some half-eaten leftovers or some antiseptic package of food he knows for a fact I will never eat. He does it, I laugh at it, and it just goes on, year after year.

What is your motto?

“Love at first sight.”

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Jesus. Mine and everyone else’s identity is measured against the standard of humanity he displayed.

On what occasion do you lie?

I can’t remember the last time I lied, it has been so long. Luckily, I catch myself before going downstream in a rehearsed lie I embedded in my mind a long time ago to make myself look more favorable and check my course. I’d rather look foolish than say something I don’t believe is true. This, unfortunately, is a late-arriving posture.


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