Barry Law Alumni is Florida’s New Leader of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs
Daniel “Danny” Burgess Jr. (’11) has melded the service-based mission and experiences he absorbed at Barry Law into a fast-paced, successful life’s journey … which has moved rapidly from local politics to Florida statewide politics, culminating in his recent appointment as the new Executive Director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
While growing up in Zephyrhills in Florida’s Pasco County, Burgess did not aspire to become a lawyer. Politics held the greatest interest for him. That passion translated into his election – at age 18 – as the youngest council member in the city’s history and the youngest elected official in Florida. Even as he fulfilled his council duties, he also began pursuing a degree in political science at the University of South Florida and started working as a legal assistant in a Zephyrhills law firm. There, he made an important discovery … the inspiration to go to law school.
While assisting at the law firm and seeing firsthand how the firm’s owner benefited so many people on a variety of issues, Burgess soon realized that law was an extension of what he wanted to do. “There’s a strong nexus between law and politics,” Burgess says. “I knew I didn’t want to become a litigator. But I loved how the law helped others, led to deeper critical thinking and how law can help you better understand and advocate for issues.”
Three months after earning his political science degree in May of 2008, Burgess decided to move to Orlando to enroll at Barry Law. “I chose Barry because – as a Catholic – faith is one of the most important things to me,” he says. “However, I’d never had the opportunity to attend a Catholic school. So, the prospect of attending Barry Law School was very appealing.”
“And I was right,” Burgess recalls. “I loved the atmosphere, the environment, the faculty and staff and especially the school’s mission and its heart for service.”
Burgess thrived on Barry’s purpose-based focus, which paralleled his own dedication to public service. Additionally, as he involved himself in Barry Law student organizations, he came to develop a great affinity for one of history’s most notable public servants – St. Thomas More. “I discovered this great man in law school and wrote 2-3 papers on him,” Burgess says. “He was such a great example of someone who refused to violate his conscience, his duty to his office.” Burgess’ admiration for the saint deepened even further upon assuming the role of president of the law school’s St. Thomas More Society.
Shortly after earning his J.D. in 2011, Burgess passed the bar exam and gives Barry Law accolades for how the school prepares students for the test. “All the credit in the world goes to Barry … the emphasis they place on the exam, the support they bring in for that – even flying in an instructor to teach us how to best prepare for that test.”
With law degree in hand, the quick pace of Burgess’ life continued. He moved back to Zephyrhills, was commissioned into the U.S. Army Reserve and got married. He soon moved with his wife to Washington D.C where he gained invaluable military experiences and perspectives. He also spent a great deal of time in nearby Charlottesville, Virginia studying at the Army Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School. Today, he retains the rank of captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and has been awarded a Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal and a Meritorious Service Medal.
In 2013, Burgess and his wife transitioned back to Zephyrhills, and became the city’s Mayor before being elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2014. Over the next four years as a state representative in Tallahassee, Burgess translated his life experiences and his commitment to public service into multiple endeavors – serving as Chair of the House Insurance and Banking Subcommittee and also sitting on the Veteran & Military Affairs Subcommittee, the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, the Local & Federal Affairs Committee and the Rulemaking Oversight & Repeal Subcommittee.
Drawing upon his military experience and service, Burgess also sponsored and achieved a number of bills and appropriations related to veterans’ issues:
- During his first Legislative Session he co-sponsored a resolution recognizing May 16 as Armed Forces Day in Florida.
- In 2016 he sponsored the House version of a bill creating Gold Star license plates for families of fallen service members.
- In 2017 he sponsored multiple bills to secure better health care options for veterans.
- In 2017 and again in 2018, he secured appropriations for a veteran intervention program and other veterans’ programs at several Gulf Coast health institutions.
- He also secured $250,000 for improvements and operations funding at Veterans Alternatives, a program addressing PTSD, depression and anxiety among combat veterans.
Burgess’ steadfast support for veterans also caught the attention of Florida’s new governor, Ron DeSantis. Shortly after the November 2018 election, DeSantis nominated Burgess to become the Executive Director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The Department is the premier point of entry for Florida veterans to access earned services, benefits and support.
“Danny’s commitment to our nation and especially to Florida’s veteran community make him the perfect fit,” DeSantis said in his recommendation statement. “His unwavering commitment to our nation and support for our veterans during his time in the legislature make him the right man for the job.”
Burgess’ appointment to the new office was subsequently confirmed by Florida’s Cabinet in January 2019.
“I am honored to have the opportunity to serve those who served us,” Burgess says of his new position, “and I view my role as an extension of my duty to those that have served. Together, we will work to ensure Florida continues to lead the charge as the most veteran-friendly state in the nation.”
Burgess also says his Barry experience has helped him as the new Executive Director. “Barry Law School really helped me to advocate, in a professional sense, for issues,” he says. “I’m eternally grateful for that experience and education because they’ve helped me become a better soldier in the army, a better elected official, a better public servant.”
As Florida’s top veterans official, Burgess says he encounters a similar high regard for Barry Law in Tallahassee. “Just today,” he says, “in committee testimony with a representative who also has Barry Law experience, I told him we are ‘Barry proud’ of our work – and he instantly knew the very high standards I was referring to.”
Looking back at his own experiences and the high standards he embraced at the Law School, Burgess has some encouragement for current and future Barry Law students. “Law school is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face in your life. But remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You have to commit yourself, put in the effort, work hard, study hard and give 110%,” he urges.
Good advice from someone who has a successful track record of his own in giving 110% during his life’s journey which has been a fusion of the law, public office, military duty and ongoing service to others.
“As a lawyer, a politician and a public servant, I love the application of law,” Burgess says. “Looking back, the study of law helped me to critically think; to understand others and see where they’re coming from. It strengthened who I was as a person, my values, my beliefs.”
He also cites a favorite quote from St. Thomas More – “The King’s good servant, but God’s first” – as perhaps a parallel synopsis of Burgess’ own approach to life. “He’s such a great example of both a lawyer and a public servant,” Burgess says. “If all lawyers, politicians and public servants held that perspective of sacrificing for what they believe, it’s just great as an example – now more than ever.”