A History of the Burns Family
Home About Contents Biographies Photo Galleries Memoirs

Don's Memoir  

I guess the best place to begin is at the beginning.  I was born in Ravenna, Ohio on Nov 17, 1907.  Father was working in a celery swamp.  As the swamp closed for the winter, Father, Mother, my sister Evelyn and I moved to Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio and moved into my grandmother’s and grandfather’s house on Newberry Street.  (Cuyahoga Falls in Indian means crooked river.  It is sometimes called the bedroom of Akron.)

  
Don, ca 1910 (click to enlarge)

The house had 5 bedrooms and what was called a truck room.  The extra furniture, clothing, and heirlooms were stored there.  The first floor had a parlor, 2 of the bedrooms, a sitting room, a dining room, a kitchen, and a pantry.  There were in addition to Grandpa and Grandma Burns 2 men who roomed and boarded there and Grandma Hawk, Grandpa’s foster mother.  So there were 9 of us.

The auto was being invented but most of transportation was still done by horse and wagon.  Grandma ordered groceries over the phone and they were delivered by horse and wagon.  A milkman delivered milk to our side porch.  Jones’s ice creamery came by in a wagon, and I would get a nickel to buy an ice cream cone and would go with him to pay the grocery bill because the grocery man would give me a bag of candy. 

Lighting was done with kerosene lamps, heating by a coal kitchen stove in the kitchen and living room.  Our water supply came from 2 sources, one from an outside well that furnished water for drinking and cooking, and a pump at the kitchen sink that produced the rain water collected from the roof of the house into a tank under the back porch.

In back of the house was a walk down through a grape arbor to an outhouse.  Just off the back porch was a pear tree and along one side of the lot were three buildings, a coal shed, a shed to house dad’s canoe, and a tool shed that housed shovel, rakes, harnesses, lawn mower, nails, screws, etc.

On one side of us lived the Petersons.  One of them, Helen, was my playmate.  Next to them were the Rometos; Alvin and Alfred were playmates.  On the other side were Susan and Andy Cowan.  Andy I liked and we got along well, but Susan I hated and one Halloween I threw rotten tomatoes on her front porch.  Beyond them were the Porters, Ernie and Tom and Grandma Porter.  One of the tales talked about was that Tom came home one night and he had lip stick on his shirt.  Grandma Porter pulled the slat out of the window blind and chased him around the room whacking him with the slat saying, I’ll larn you not to be out with chippies.

Grandma did the baking and cooking; mother did the washing, ironing, and housecleaning. Saturday night at bedtime was the occasion for the weekly bath.  A big tub was put in the kitchen and filled with warm water.  Evelyn (my sister) was first.  She was soaped and rinsed with a pitcher of warm water.  I came next.  I was soaped in the same water and rinsed with a pitcher of fresh warm water.  The adults took turns to finish the weekly chores.  I don’t know when the two boarders bathed unless it was in the spring when the ice came off Schnabel’s [sp?] Creek.

Grandma did the baking and cooking.  Bread, pies, cakes, cookies were made every Saturday.  Fruits and vegetables were canned each summer, a crock of sauerkraut was put up.  Grandpa went into the country with Mr. Zebo who had the company horse and wagon where he worked and bought the winter supply of potatoes and apples, which were put into the basement in bins.  Grandpa paid 40 cents a bushel (less than 1 cent per lb) and 50 cents per bushel for apples.

We had pie for dessert during the week, cake on Sunday, cookies for breakfasts.  I remember an incident at dinner when we had spinach.  I didn’t like it and left it on my plate.  Father said, Eat your spinach, Don, it will grow hair on your chest.  My sister immediately responded, “Why should I eat it?”

Saturday was a day of homework.  The lampwicks had to be trimmed and glass cleaned, clocks rewound, lawn mowed, porches and walks swept.  Sunday was a day of church, and occasionally a camping or fishing trip.

Grandpa and Dad were fisherman.  When I was about five years old, they took me up the river on my first fishing trip.  Dad launched the canoe at Willow Rock and up the river we went.  We portaged around the Dam at Monroe Falls, and soon found a satisfactory camping place.  We went ashore and set up the tent, started a fire, prepared dinner and settled down for the night.  I amused Dad and Granddad with a statement I made.  “Gee, Dad, I forgot to bring my nightgown,” and later as we went up and down the shore fishing, Dad observed “Every time I look at you, you are falling down or getting up.”

I was sickly in my early childhood and at one point I was close to death with Bright’s Disease [early term for nephritis, inflammation of the kidneys].  Father made a harness to carry me on his back so I could go on family picnics.  Mother was very concerned and looked after me and watched over me constantly.

Time came to go to school.  I had long blond curls that went to my shoulders that Mother gave daily attention to.  The Sat. before school started in the fall, Father took me to the barbershop with the statement that “I’m going to make a boy out of you.”  I wouldn’t let the barber cut my hair.  So Dad brought me home and convinced Mother of the importance of a haircut.  Mother cut the long curls off with tears running down her cheeks.

Well, off to school I went with my sister leading the way.  She was in the third grade and I was in the first grade.  My teacher divided the class in small groups to develop their vocabulary.  When my turn came she said, Donald, tell me a word beginning in TR.  I answered, turd.  She said, Go wash your mouth out with soap and stay in the cloak room the rest of the period.

In grade school I was called a sissy and many guys loved to pick on me and raise their ego by running me down.  I wasn’t very popular with the girls either.  Father kept pushing me to fight back and as I reached the 7th and 8th grades, I became more aggressive and more acceptable to both boys and girls.  Dad arranged for me to take boxing lessons, which I did for a couple of years.  As a freshman I won the lightweight title.  My acceptance by my contemporaries went up.

Description: PrayersFather didn’t stop his pressure.  He persuaded me to go out for football my sophomore year (he played football at the same school).  I didn’t make the team, but did work out at nights. I finally became a right tackle in my junior year, and was finally on the championship team of the Trolley League.  It was made up of 6 cities connected by electric trolley.  My popularity among both girls and boys increased enormously.  My ego took a big jump.

I was from a religious family.  At an early age, I was baptized by immersion.  I with my family attended church regularly. Father was a lover of nature and a fisherman and I went with him and my grandfather regularly on the Cuyahoga River.

I graduated from high school without honors in spite of one teacher’s statement, “Why aren’t you as smart as your sister who graduated two years earlier as valedictorian of her class?”

Having no money for college, I went to work for a year at General Tire and Rubber Co in Akron, Ohio making tubes that fit in tires and held the air.  In September 1925 I decided to go to Ohio State University to study horticulture and landscape gardening.  OSU was the only school in the state that had a curriculum for that study.  My choice of study was conditioned by my father’s interest in beautifying the grounds around the house with shrubbery and flowers as well as a vegetable garden that produced most of the vegetables that we needed.  So off to Columbus I went.


Football at Cuyahoga Falls High School

Having been on a championship football team in H.S., I began to have hopes of making the OSU football team.  I went out for the freshman squad with the understanding that I would get an athletic scholarship if I made the freshman squad.  I didn’t make it.  I was competing against guys who weighed 250 to 300 lbs. I weighed 160.

A short time after I started school, I got a job at a sorority washing dishes that paid for my food.  About the second month I became a pledge of the TKE fraternity.  I was responsible to spend 2 weeks as a house pledge.  Almost all the duties were housekeeping, sweeping, dusting, making beds, cleaning the bath room, etc.  I was there Wed, Thurs, Fri & Sat.  On Saturday morning I gave the bathroom a thorough cleaning and I went downstairs and had breakfast.  About 10:00 a fraternity member who was not then in school but lived in the fraternity house came down after taking a bath and ordered me to clean up the bathroom.  I told him that I cleaned the bathroom and had done my duty in this respect.  A week later I was dropped as a pledge for insubordination and failure to carry out orders of members.

About a month later another fraternity pledged me and I became a house pledge again.  I moved into the fraternity house.  Saturday came and I did my chores and went to bed about 10:00.  At midnight, the house manager wakened me and took me to the dormitory where there was complete chaos, bedding scattered and piled everywhere, paint splattered over beds, floors, and walls.  The house mgr said clean it up.  He added that members had gone out on the town, got drunk, and when they got home got in a fight.  I took one more look, went back to my room, packed my bag, and left. 

I must add that this episode ended my collegiate relationship with fraternities.

About midyear, while I was still a pledge of the TKE fraternity, they held their annual formal dinner dance.  I had to get a partner.  A young lady in my Latin class came into focus.  I asked if she would go.  She refused but said that she thought a pledge in her sorority would go.  Next day she said that Vivian would go.

I rented a tux on the day of the dinner dance.  About 4 o’clock I got dressed.  About 5:00 I called a taxi to pick up Vivian and I at her home at six.  I rode the bus and walked to her house and got there at 5 to six.  I did this to save the taxi fare from my home to hers. I knocked on the door and a mature woman came.  She said a taxi came about 15 minutes ago and took her.  I got back to the trolley line and made my way to the hotel ballroom in downtown Columbus.  I looked around for Vivian and saw a lone young lady sitting in the corner.  I approached her and asked, Could you by chance be Vivian?  Her answer was, “Well.” To make matters worse, after we danced a couple of times, she discovered food stuff on the front of her dress and on the front of my coat.  She did not talk to me again either at the dance or on our way home.  Nor did her friend in my Latin class speak to me.

Anyway, I got through the year with mostly B’s, a couple of A’s, and 2 C’s. I got back in June and got a job for the summer at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.  Since Mother and Dad were dedicated church people, I went to church regularly with them.  Mother was in charge of the Cradle Roll and the primary and beginner department of the Sunday school, and Father was chairman of the board of elders.

Before the summer was over, I decided to study for the ministry.  One Sunday I came forward during the service and declared my dedication to the ministry.  I transferred to Hiram College, a school affiliated with the Christian church.

Winter came, and with it colds.  I developed chronic sinusitis, which was exacerbated by the fact that I had broken my nose twice in football.  (This was before the face mask.)  The doctor operated on my nose and cleared it up some.  But the sinusitis remained.  The doctor recommended that I move to a warmer climate.  I applied and was accepted at Chapman College in California.  The football coach at Hiram knew the coach at Chapman, and he negotiated an athletic scholarship for me.  I started there in the fall of ’27.

 

I made the football team as right tackle.  In basketball I made the squad but not the starting five.  I was a member of the glee club, the debating squad, president of the men’s dorm, and a member of the gospel team.  The latter was composed of a quartet, a person to give the sermon, and someone to direct the service.  We went to different churches each Sunday. The school furnished a car for the 6 of us.  On one occasion I drove.  Coming back to school, I was given a ticket by a policemen for going through an intersection more than 25 mi per hr.  The next week I appeared in court.  The judge fined me $25 or 12½ days in jail.  I said I didn’t have $25, which I didn’t (that was more like $250 now).  I was in jail overnight.  The next morning, the man at the desk said that he would let me go if I promised not to do it again.

I did fairly well in my studies in spite of the fact that I had 3 jobs and other responsibilities.  I washed pots and pans for my board and room in the dorm.  I had a job each night at a skating rink checking in shoes and checking out skates.  And I had a job in a business building seeing that all the windows were closed and sweeping its halls. So I had 1 night a week for study. In my senior year, I was given a job as young people’s director at Fullerton Christian Church.  The college benefactor Charles Chapman was chairman of the board of elders.  He was a multi-millionaire.  Summer came and the minister went on vacation and I was asked to fill the pulpit.  This was in the 1930 Depression days.  I spoke on the subject “No Christian can be content while the unemployed walk the streets hungry.”  The next Tues, I got a letter from Chas Chapman that I should leave the social questions to the sociologists and preach salvation.  That I shouldn’t make parishioners discontented with this life but show them how to get into Heaven.  3 months later I was dismissed.

After graduation with a Bachelor of Arts degree, I went back home to Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.  I got a job in a factory in Kent, Ohio, just a short way from home.  After corresponding with 2 former Chapman graduates attending Transylvania University, I decided to go to Transylvania University in Kentucky to study for a doctorate.

Two professors there had a profound influence on me.  One presented the NT [New Testament] in terms of the knowledge they had at that time.  For example, in Genesis it says in the beginning was the void (water everywhere).  God caused the water to evaporate and dry land to appear.  This was verified by the writer’s experience that rain came from above and by digging a well, water could be brought up from below.

The other professor that had an influence on my thinking was a philosophy professor who was an advocate of John Dewey.  He taught that because we live in an ever-changing world we have to continually make new relationships to cope with new situations.

I did not have enough money for another year, so I went back home and went to work at Miller Rubber Co., and a weekend job in a small rural church.  After 3 months the chairman of the board asked me to present a sermon on the Bible.  It was a farm community, and I tried to relate it to their experience.  I asked, “What would you do if you had corn smut?  I assume you would go down the road to a farmer who had corn smut and find out how he dealt with it.  You would contact the dept. of agriculture, go to the library and look for information.   In other words you would gather all the information you could find to work out a solution and carry it out.  Moral, ethical, and religious questions should be dealt with the same way.  Gather all the material you can find, work out a plan to deal with it, and carry it out.  Because I didn’t say that the Bible was the sole source of information for moral, ethical, and religious questions, they fired me as an atheist.

The door to the ministry was closed. [Author's note: Don did perform a dozen marriages, but later joked that they all ended in divorce.] Teaching seemed to be the only direction open to me.  I enrolled in Akron Uni to get a master’s degree with a major in psychology and continued my job at Miller Rubber Co on a shift from 12:00 [midnight] to 6:00 AM.  After the first year I accumulated credits in the courses that met the requirements for teaching social studies.

The year of 1935 was the most important year of my life.  Father, who had a considerable stock interest in Miller Rubber Co and was assistant treasurer, lost all of his investments and his position because the owners sold the co. to Goodrich Tire & Rubber Co.  He sold his home, his farm, and other property and moved to Seattle where he got a job as an apt. manager.

One day he and my mother were cleaning up an apt where the tenant had moved out.  Mother had about a third of a bucket of soapy water to wash walls.  Father backed into it and upset the bucket on the carpet.  They used towels to soak up the water.  The next day they went up to the apt and to their surprise there was a nice big clean spot.  They made a new bucket of soapy water and cleaned the whole rug.  The consequences of this event I will take up later.

When Dad and Mother moved to Seattle, I got a room at the house of one of my professors.  One evening I was lamenting to my prof that I needed to have some social life, that I was bored.  Dr. Sappington said to me, “Why don’t you ask the girl in the last seat in the next row that you are always turned around and looking at, Helen Bridges?”  I did and she accepted a date to the Colonial Theater.

              

I applied for a teaching job in the public school at $900 per year, I was making $1200 at my job at Miller Rubber Co.  My application was accepted.  Helen, who had finished her third year of college, agreed to become my wife.  We were married on the Saturday before the Monday that I began teaching.  During the 3rd year at South High School, the school board proposed a retrenchment program of eliminating languages and a number of courses, and of dismissing married and older teachers and replacing them with students at half time at minimum wage.

The American Federation of Teachers opposed these measures and grew to 500 members in 6 months.  I was elected president and I began a campaign to elect a new school board and a [illegible] program.  I was fired at the end of 5 years as incompetent.  I threatened to take the case to court.  They then said less competent.  I countered that I would still take them to court.  The school then said that they had to reduce the staff and they had to make choices and that I was the one chosen.

I applied for a teaching job from San Diego to Alaska, and Akron to Texas.  I later found the Akron School Board reference letter said that I was a fair classroom teacher (which was the kiss of death) but because of my union and political activities (attempting to get a new school board elected that was not controlled by the rubber industry), they would not rehire me.

Helen during this period had graduated from Akron U, and got a job teaching in a private suburban school.  The only way she could get to work was by taxi, but the charges for taxi fare were more than she received in salary.

She couldn’t get a job in Akron schools because of their ban on married teachers.  Helen stood by me through all of this.  She was a loyal loving wife.

Having no success in getting another job teaching, my father invited me to come to Seattle.  The clean spot on the rug led them into the rug cleaning business, which rapidly expanded into the largest carpet services business west of the Mississippi.  I worked with my father and brothers for about 20 years.  The youngest brother Robt left and went off to college to become a doctor.  In 1960 I became bored with rugs and spots and decided to try to go back to teaching.

I applied along with Helen for large numbers of positions.  Those who interviewed seemed interested until a wk or 2 later they received the reference letter from Akron.  I thought the whole problem over and decided to call long distance the principal under whom I taught in Akron.  His response was, “I’m glad you called.  This has been on my conscience all these years.  I was forced by the superintendent to give you a bad record and I’m glad that I can correct it.”  He sent a glowing letter to the Seattle School Board of my teaching ability.

After my experience in the church, in the colleges and public schools, the workplace and the community, I came to the conclusion that the most important role I could play was not to help people get into heaven but to make a better world.  I felt that my most important role was not cleaning rugs but in dealing with the many problems of hunger, homelessness, sickness, lack of opportunity, war, endangered environment, prejudice, etc.


Helen and I joined Church of the People, an independent church that had a social focus.  I became chairman of the Social Action Committee.  Helen became active in the cooperative movement.  I joined the NAACP and the socialist party.  There developed a concern for affordable health care.  We organized a dinner and invited a doctor from Kansas City to speak.  He was a Dr. in the only medical coop in the U.S.  110 people showed up and a committee was formed which led the way to Group Health Cooperative in Seattle, which has now spread to Vancouver, WA.

Our church social action committee began a drive against racial segregation.  There was a restaurant on Beacon Hill that refused to serve blacks.  Our committee members along with some blacks went to the restaurant.  We filled all the seats.  They ignored the blacks and asked for our orders.  The whites refused to order until the blacks were served.  We left with the threat that a continuance of their policy would see us back again.  We picketed with the CIO at a skating rink that refused to rent skates to blacks.  Eugene Debs was invited to town to speak at a dinner.  A hotel claimed that it was all booked and had no room for him.  Our committee and some 25 members filled the seats holding signs describing their prejudice.  The hotel gave in after 2 hours and gave Debs a room.

The minister and a number of parishioners became interested, the ACLU principally because of discrimination against blacks and women.  I became a card-carrying member and served on the board for 6 years.

Probably the most interesting and exciting activity of my life was sailing.  I bought a 42-foot sloop and sailed it in Puget Sound and Lake Washington.  I joined the Corinthian and Seattle Yacht Clubs, organizations that sponsored the races.  Membership was referred for participation.  With the help of Bud Anderson, we were able to win 6 awards with 12 race victories over the three years that I raced.

The races took me into every corner of Puget Sound and Lake Washington.  Some of them were overnight.  The Starling was one of the fastest boats on the Sound, at least it had one of the highest handicaps.  Because of this handicap we would on occasion cross the finish line first but end up second.