The Nation’s Most Ordinary Citizen

American Icons, People
on November 12, 2006
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Jonathan Olson
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Bob Burns may be the most ordinary person in America. He’s 54, married, wears glasses, makes mortgage payments on a three-bedroom, ranch-style house, and works 40 hours a week as a maintenance supervisor at Windham Technical High School in Willimantic, Conn. (pop. 15,823).
Burns drinks coffee each morning, reads the newspaper each day, walks his dog each evening and attends church most Sundays.

The 5-foot-8-inch, 190-pound Burns is such an average Joe that he’s the unpretentious star of the 2005 book The Average American: The Extraordinary Search for the Nation’s Most Ordinary Citizen by Kevin O’Keefe.

“I’m a little bit of a local celebrity,” says Burns, who feels honored to be singled out for being perfectly ordinary. “I’m just the everyday person who does his or her job to the best of his ability.”

On a typical workday, Burns might deliver a cartload of textbooks to a classroom, fix a leaky flush valve in the boys’ bathroom or inspect the fire extinguishers on the school buses.

“The job can be a handful, like any job,” he says, striding down the hallway at Windham Tech in size 101/2 work boots and Rustler jeans that he bought on sale at Wal-Mart. “It’s a $50 million building and it’s my job to keep it safe. I just take it one day at a time.”

At 3 p.m. quitting time, he checks his e-mail for last-minute work requests, hops in his 1996 white GMC pickup truck and drives three miles to his home in Windham, Conn. (pop. 22,857).

Finding the most common man among nearly 300 million people was uncommonly difficult for O’Keefe. “I thought at first I could go to the Census Bureau and someone could hit a few buttons and I’d have a name,” he says.

Instead, O’Keefe’s search turned into a two-year journey that took him from Keene, N.H., to the Hawaiian island of Maui. Along the way, he met dozens of colorful characters and distilled a profusion of statistics—from the average home size to the average commute time—into 140 criteria that define the average American.

“The biggest surprise was—Bob,” O’Keefe says. The only person O’Keefe found who matched all 140 criteria happened to be someone that he knew from his high school days. When O’Keefe attended Edwin O. Smith High School in Mansfield, Conn. (pop. 20,720), Burns worked as a custodian there.
Today, O’Keefe aspires to be like Burns. “It’s important to have balance in your life,” he says.

Like 60 percent of Americans, Burns lives in his native state. Born in Willimantic, he graduated in 1971 from the very high school where he works.

The year after graduation, he met his wife, Sue, thanks to a matchmaking co-worker. Burns walked three miles to Kentucky Fried Chicken where Sue was working and nervously placed an order with his bride-to-be: “Is there a Susan here? I’d like to order a shrimp box dinner.”

The shrimp dinner led to a first date, then a pre-engagement ring three months later. “I knew right away that this was the one for me,” Bob says. “You know when the hammer hits your head.”

The couple have three children: David, 30, an attorney in Bolton, Conn. (pop. 5,017); Nicole Starkey, 27, a juvenile caseworker in Windham; and Jared, 24, stationed at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas.

The family’s tidy 1968 red shingle-sided house is bordered with blooming gladiolas, coneflowers, tomatoes and raspberries and, as is the national norm, has a paved parking area leading to the garage. While the couple’s children are grown, they frequently pop in for visits and two granddaughters help keep the house abuzz. As with most Americans, the Burns consider their family to be “extremely” or “very important.”

Bob and Sue provide a spare room as a “home away from home” to six to eight cadets each year from the nearby U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. (pop. 25,671).

“They’re such easy guests,” Sue says. “Usually, it’ll be a three-day weekend and they’ll come here and watch sports with Bob.”

Sixty-four percent of Americans are football fans, as is Bob. He’s also a baseball fan and coached Little League for 15 years. That’s typical, too, of most Americans, who are charitable with both their time and money.

When he wants to relax, Bob goes fishing. In the summer, he enjoys grilling his latest catch, alongside hamburgers and Polish sausage, on his backyard deck. A grill on a deck, porch or patio is standard at most American homes, as are pets. The Burns have three—cats Roger and Jinx and dog Missy.

A white picket fence frames the couple’s backyard that is shaded by towering spruces. No, a picket fence isn’t among the 140 criteria of the average American, but it seems a perfect fit, along with the Stars & Stripes flying in the front yard.

Like 63 percent of Americans, Bob says he is living the American dream. “I may not be the wealthiest person in the world, but I’m happy with what I’ve got,” he says. “I’ve been married 34 years to the same person. I’m very proud of my kids. I couldn’t ask for more.”

How Average Are You?
Here’s a quiz to help you determine what you have in common with most Americans.

Do you believe in God?
—More than 80 percent of American adults believe in God, and about 10 percent believe in a “universal spirit.”

How close do you live to the nearest McDonald’s and Wal-Mart?
—Most Americans live within three miles of a McDonald’s restaurant and within a 20-minute drive of a Wal-Mart.

Do you prefer smooth or chunky peanut butter?
—Most Americans—83 percent—prefer smooth.

Are you a high school graduate?
—About 85 percent of Americans earn a high school diploma.

Are you married?
—Most Americans—90 percent—marry at least once in their lifetime.

How old is your car?
—The average American’s vehicle is eight years old.

Do you own a pet?
—Most American households—63 percent—have at least one pet, primarily dogs and cats.

How large is your home?
—The average American home is 2,500 square feet.

How long have you lived in your current home?
—Most Americans—54 percent—have lived in the same home for at least the last five years.

What time are you regularly in bed?
—Most Americans—74 percent—are in bed before midnight.

Are you happy?
—Most Americans—80 percent—say they generally wake up happy.

Would you rather be in prison for one week or president of the United States?
—Most Americans—52 percent—would prefer a week in prison.