BETHEL — Funeral services were held Jan. 28 at the United Church of Bethel for George H. Burnahm, Jr. who died Jan. 23.
As George himself always said, he was born in Hartford Hospital—a hospital birth being still rather unusual for someone born as he was in 1933, on April 18th to be exact.
Other facts he often shared had to do with his early childhood and family in Connecticut. For instance, on his father’s side, his heritage was English, the family arriving in Hartford in the 1600s. On his mother’s side, he was Italian: his grandfather came to America in 1892 by himself at age 14, with his money sewn into his undergarments, heading for a job at a brick company in Berlin Connecticut, where he would be the office boy.
George fondly remembered big Italian feasts at his grandfather’s house, that featured seven-course dinners with delicious homemade wine. He came to Vermont exactly 70 years ago in January 1944 when his mom and dad bought a farm in Sharon. George was ten. He had already been working on his paternal grandfather’s tobacco farm and he took to Vermont dairy farming right away. He loved so much about it: the animals, the crops, the hunting, the sugaring, and just the land itself. George loved to strap on his snowshoes and just head for the woods, roaming for hours. The family farm in Sharon was up on Broad Brook, and in the winters George and his sister and brother used to ride their sleds down a mile-long hill to get to their one-room schoolhouse. While still in his mid teens, he began hauling milk, picking up cans from farms in Barnard and Sharon and God knows where else, all over the place. These were also the years he began to love dancing, going out on the weekends to dance all night and returning home in the morning just in time to run his route. Later, he enlisted and served as part of the postwar occupation troops in Germany with the oldest division in the United States Army, the Big Red One Outfit. George was very proud of his time in the military. He was a driver for officers and maintained the trucks he drove. Just before this time, before leaving for his assignment in Germany, he had married his neighbor on the Brook, Hilda Piper, and over the course of their twenty-seven-year marriage, they had five boys. Tragically, their oldest son Jeff, died in a motorcycle accident in 1979. After returning from the service in Germany, George went to work for his brother-in-law doing construction. Then the family moved to Cornwall in 1960, where his parents had bought a bigger farm, hoping it would support two families. To supplement his income from the farm, George continued working in construction, hiring on with Bill Delong, who recognized his natural abilities and mentored him in the trade, giving him progressively more responsibility and encouraging him to start his own business, which George did in the early 1970s.
Throughout that decade and in the ’80s and early ’90s too, George’s vans, with the Burnham Builders logo emblazoned on their white or blue sides, could be spotted throughout the Champlain Valley, where he designed, built, and renovated houses, barns, and businesses. He also bought land on the outskirts of Middlebury where from the ground up, he designed and built the Woodlands, still a thriving, beautifully wooded community. So, in spite of the fact that like many rural children of his era, he’d had limited schooling, going only through the 8th grade, George built and ran a very successful business for over twenty-five years. But George’s life was changing. In 1984, he married Janet, and she worked with him on many of his projects, the two of them making a creative team. Then, once George was ready to downshift work-wise, he and Janet moved to Bethel in 1996, where ever since they have been living in a historic house they remodeled. Over the years back in the Middlebury area, George had been involved in various community organizations, including The Masons, the Shriners, the Lions, and the American Legion. He also supported Middlebury’s football program and sponsored a baseball team, as well as a scholarship that was established in memory of his son Jeff. This scholarship went annually to an all-around student athlete to help send them to college. In Bethel, he continued his active civic involvement as a member of the Historical Society and the United Church. Up in his wonderfully-organized wood shop, he also fashioned things seen in town, including the signboards outside the Town Hall and White Church, the book train in the children’s section of the library, and the faithful model of the Town Hall that graces the lobby of that same building. And all this time, he was making other things too: shadow boxes, weather vanes, jelly cupboards–really too many things to list, while still occasionally doing renovations and repairs for local customers, many who called on him for years. The upshot is that in spite of the sign hanging on his shop door–“No clock, no phone, no address, no money: RETIRED”–George never truly retired. He was always happiest doing, being busy in the best sense of the word. But George Burnham wasn’t only about work–he was a man with a big heart who loved his family, loved his friends, loved his community and loved his country.
The many who loved him in return whom he leaves behind includes: His beloved bride, Janet Hayward Burnham; his four sons and their wives: Dennis and Cheryl, Barry and April; Craig; and Stacy and Linda; his sister Gail and her husband Harold; his brother Richard and his wife Jean; many cousins including Theodora, Ginny and Betty Jean; nephews and nieces Richard and finance Cheryl; Timothy and wife Maureen; Stephen and wife Theresa; Suzanne and husband Jorge; grandsons, Jake, Cole, Cliff, Evan, and Race; grandnieces and nephews, Cassandra, Alexis, Richard, Nathaniel, McKenzie, Brian, Morgan, James, and Charles ; stepchildren Scott and wife Cheryl, Mark and wife Maricel, Hilary, and Kristen and partner Judy; step-grandchildren, Bryan, Lisa, Jade, Jesse, Charmaine and Charlie. Last but not least, he leaves behind the newest addition to the family, a great grandson who gave him much delight in his last few months, George Sawyer Burnham.
In lieu of flowers, donations in George’s name can be sent to The Bethel Historical Society, PO Box 25, Bethel, VT 05032.
This obituary first appeared in the February 6, 2014 print edition of the Vermont Standard.
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