Mary Mortensen Burman sat quietly on her sofa.
Sunlight danced on a nearby photo of her great-grandchildren. Above her head was a painting of a barn that might have resembled the farm where her parents met.
The 87-year-old retired teacher and mother of six peered through her thin-rimmed trifocals and spoke softly about a crow who regularly visited her.
“(Crows) were not gifted with a pleasant song,” she said, then chuckled. “But he patrols the place and scares off any strange birds.”
Although she possesses a history rich with stories, Burman’s recollections were concise and purposeful. Where others might pass the time with pleasant elaborations of days gone by, she was content to tell her story a sentence or two at a time.
When asked about her accomplishments, she was quick to point out her time teaching at Laramie Junior High School, raising her children and serving as the general education director for Laramie’s First Baptist Church.
But nearly 30 letters nominating her for the Laramie Boomerang/Lions Club Community Service Award for 2016 tell a larger story.
Burman served on the Albany County School District No. 1 board for more than two decades. She organized volunteers for cleaning events, charity walks and Christmas caroling. She helped found and run the Cooperative Vacation Bible School. She volunteers with the University of Wyoming Symphony Association. She is a Home Delivered Meals delivery driver for the Eppson Center for Seniors. She is a Sunday school teacher. For more than a decade, she’s read books to children during storytime at Linford Elementary School and Hilltop Christian Child Care. She participated in the Community Holiday Program, helping provide families-in-need with gifts and holiday cheer. She’s spent countless hours visiting sick or elderly people in their homes or at Spring Wind Assisted Living and Laramie Care Center.
The list and letters go on.
In Laramie, it would be hard to find a home untouched by Burman’s efforts.
Pursuit of education
The daughter of a Danish immigrant, Burman’s father left Denmark at the age of 16 in 1915.
“He wanted to learn American, but he went to Iowa, which was filled with Danish farmers,” Burman said. “So, he signed on with the only American farmer and ended up marrying the farmer’s daughter.”
After joining the U.S. Army to earn his citizenship, Burman’s father found work as a mail clerk for the railway in Chicago, where she was born and spent the first five months of her life.
“I really know nothing about Chicago except my father wanted to get out of there,” she said.
The family transferred to Cheyenne and Burman lived there until attending UW from 1948-1952.
“I married my husband Robert, and we moved away for a few years before coming back (to Laramie),” Burman recalled.
She spent the next two decades raising her children — five boys and a girl — before pursuing her dreams of becoming a teacher.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” Burman said. “My younger brother will tell you he never even could go out to play, because his big sister wanted to play school. So, he said he didn’t need to go to school when he was 6 years old, because he’d already been.”
In 1975, Burman hired on at Laramie Junior High School as an English teacher. However, her career was cut short when her oldest son was diagnosed with a hereditary neurological disease, she said.
“I took an early retirement option in 1985 so I could take care of him,” Burman said. “We had two sons that died from the disease.”
While similar to Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disease marked by a tremor of resting muscles, rigidity and a shuffling gait, she said her sons’ disease also caused them to lose their eyesight.
Despite the trauma and loss her family suffered, Burman did not give up on her passion for education.
A teacher throughout
Although she retired early, Burman said she still wanted to be involved.
“I served 23 years on the Albany County School District (No. 1) School Board,” she said proudly. “I could still be connected with schools even though I retired to be home with (my son).”
With experience as a teacher in the public school system, Burman said she was able to bring to the board a different point of view.
“She was always calm and rational,” said Charles Ksir, a former school board member and interim director for Interfaith-Good Samaritan. “She always had a good perspective on things.”
Burman rarely, if ever, missed a meeting and approached the school board meetings with enthusiasm and optimism, Ksir said.
“We went through a period of having to close an elementary school,” he said. “People got really upset at that. She was calm and tried explaining to people it was something we had to do because of budget concerns.”
Burman said the budget crisis also led to her most memorable phone call.
“This lady called fairly late at night and said, ‘If the School Board would set the example of taking a cut in pay, then it would be easier for us to understand the other cuts,’” she remembered. “I said, ‘Do you know how much the school board is paid?’ She said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘We serve for free.’ And the phone hung up.”
Burman found other ways to teach.
When the First Baptist Church didn’t have enough children enrolled in its vacation Bible school, she said she worked with other churches to form the Cooperative Vacation Bible School so the program wouldn’t be canceled.
“It started with just three churches,” she said.
Nowadays, Burman is retired from the program, but it has grown to include seven churches.
“We had over 100 kids for a couple of years,” she said. “We taught Bible stories, sang songs and did crafts.”
When Burman was a child, her mother read stories to the family.
“As soon as we were in fourth grade, we would walk to the library every Tuesday,” Burman said.
The tradition stuck, and she soon found herself reading to her own children. When they were grown and making regular visits to the library for themselves, Burman found other children to read to.
“For probably 10 years, I have read to classes at Hilltop Christian Child Care,” she said. “I go to the library and pick out a big bag of books every few weeks.”
One of her favorite books to read to the kids is “Choo Choo” by Virginia Lee Burton.
“A good book is a good book for a long time,” she said, adding thoughtfully, “but you find out there are a lot of dumb books out there, too.”
Hilltop Christian Child Care Director Nancy Henschel said Burman’s stories were highly anticipated by the children at the center.
“She started reading Bible stories,” Henschel said. “She would kind of animate it and make it cool for the kids. They really enjoyed it.”
Ranging in age from 2-10 years old, the children often requested “Choo Choo” by name, she said.
“They really enjoy that because they’re really into trains and steam engines and Thomas the train,” Henschel said. “I know she really likes to read the books that have the windows to open up, and the kids enjoy that.”
Of all the stories people around Laramie have to tell about Burman, perhaps her approach to helping others can be summed up with a story in Dianna Kocornik’s nomination letter.
A spring snowstorm dumped about 12 inches of snow in the Laramie Valley mid-May, breaking tree limbs and causing poor driving conditions throughout the city. But Kocornik said that didn’t stop Burman from heading out on home deliveries.
“She went out in that storm to deliver her usual meals because ‘People still need to eat,’” Kocornik writes.