John Burhani embraced life with a creative energy and generosity of spirit. But the water was what always spoke to him.
The owner of the Pierhead Lighthouse at the mouth of Kenosha’s harbor channel, Burhani was a beacon for those who shared his love of sailing, kiteboarding and windsurfing, or just wanted to learn.
Burhani died Tuesday, surrounded by family at his home, according to close friends. He was 49.
“The water was in his blood,” said Ed Montano, commodore of the Kenosha Yacht Club. “He’d do anything to be out on the water.”
Burhani, who was also an artist, purchased the lighthouse on Simmons Island four years ago for $17,000 and turned its interior into his studio.
In an interview the Kenosha News at the time, he said he pounced on the opportunity to become the lighthouse’s unofficial curator.
“I lived in Kenosha most of my life, and the best thing about Kenosha is the lake,” Burhani said in the interview. “How many times in your life do you get to buy a lighthouse?”
Ralph Ruffolo, owner of Southport Rigging and a sailing partner, said Burhani shared his talents with all he encountered.
“John was a friend to everyone he met. He had this incredible gift of bringing the best out of people,” said Ruffolo, who knew him as a teenager and employed him at his shop. “Anything he decided to do — painting, kiteboarding windsurfing or racing sailboats — he had fun doing. But he did it better than most of us could even think of doing it.”
For nine years, Burhani worked for Ruffolo selling windsurfing and other gear for water sports. Burhani later went to work for Neil Pryde, a major manufacturer of sails, rigs and wetsuits for boardsailing and windsurfing in Florida, according to Ruffolo.
Ruffolo said when he told the company of Burhani’s failing health, it had nothing but praise for him.
“In fact, they said John and one other guy were the young lions that made the brand successful,” he said.
Five years ago, Ruffolo said Burhani was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Even so, Burhani didn’t let the disease stop him.
“Last year we did a double-handed race from Waukegan to Port Washington, and we won the race,” Ruffolo said. “Probably two weeks later, he did the single-handed Queens Cup (solo race), and he won that.
“He’s done the Solo Mack (a sailing race from Chicago to Mackinac Island) three times and won it every time. The first time he sailed it he won it,” Ruffolo said.
Rob Zerban, former Kenosha County Board supervisor and a sailing partner, remembered Burhani fondly.
“You couldn’t have known a nicer person with a bigger heart — a loving person, great sailor, great husband and father,” he said. “Talk about somebody who really embraced living life to its fullest. It was John.”
Just last week, Ruffolo was at Burhani’s home where he and a few others were working on the rudder of his 40-foot sailboat. Burhani always intended to go out on the water again, he said.
“He was looking to get a new auto pilot to help steer the boat better while he was moving the sails,” Ruffolo said. “There he was, and the doctor tells him he has a week to live. He was always the optimist.
“When we’re all just standing on the dock and wondering whether to go out into the water, John was the one who’d go, and we’d follow him,” he said. “He’s gonna be missed by all of us.”