Town Story: Burlington
With only 4,000 occupants, this eastern plains town may appear at first unassuming, but there's more than just a century-old secret swirling in Burlington's city center.
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BURLINGTON IS ABOUT as far to the eastern edge of Colorado as you can get – just 13 miles from Kansas – but it’s right in the heart of wheat country. Burlington folks tend to be humble and hardworking types, not too concerned with glamor and fame. But that’s not to say no one from Burlington has gained statewide or even national prominence.
The Burlingtonian who generated the most column inches in national media was “the living corpse,” Jim Gernhart. Born in 1876 and raised on a Kansas homestead, Gernhart retired to Burlington at age 70. Five years later in 1951, Gernhart was disappointed at the turnout at his sister’s funeral and decided he would make sure his own funeral was done right by holding it before he died.
“He was kind of an odd duck,” said Gene Pralle, whose dad had a machine shop where Gernhart used to hang around. “He talked about having a funeral because he wanted to know who his friends were.”
So Gernhart bought a casket and a headstone, rented out the old armory building and hired a minister to eulogize him. Burlington held a parade for Gernhart and half the town attended the funeral. Reporters from across the nation covered the spectacle, including Life magazine, which ran a feature on the eccentric’s “next-to-last rites.”
Evidently, Gernhart liked the experience so much that he repeated the funeral again the next year. And again in following years. When he wasn’t having a funeral, he was posing in his casket for tourists who made special trips just to see him. By the time he died for real in 1980, at 103 years old, he had staged more than a dozen funerals and had worn out three caskets. Pralle was a pallbearer in Gernhart’s actual funeral across the border in Goodland, Kan., where the late living corpse was laid to rest, staying true to his oft-repeated quip: “I wouldn’t be caught dead in Burlington.”
Though Gernhart had his own off-beat charm, many in Burlington were glad to see national news stories about local boy Mike Lounge, who made good as a NASA space shuttle astronaut. Lounge made three spaceflights between 1985 and 1990. He got a parade of his own in Burlington, and he put on talks recounting his voyages. Former Mayor Rol Hudler recalls talking to Lounge right before the astronaut was to address a huge, adoring Burlington crowd. A surprised Hudler noticed Lounge was nervous.
“I’ve seen you on national television,” Hudler said to him. “They’ve spent millions of dollars telling you how to handle the media.”
“You don’t understand,” Lounge replied. “This is my hometown — I’m scared to death.”
While only one Burlingtonian has blasted into space, plenty more have the right stuff in other ways, Hudler said. The city’s residents are progressive, never failing to pitch in their time and resources to improve their hometown. Hudler experienced this firsthand in his 26 years as mayor and even longer stint as editor of the local weekly newspaper, The Burlington Record. The town knows that if it wants to thrive, it has to invest in its hospitals, schools, special events and infrastructure.
James Perez and Sacramento Pimentel, two of Burlington’s three or so physicians, are living testaments to city’s knack for creative problem solving. Like many rural areas, Burlington hasn’t always had an easy time attracting and keeping doctors. So in the early 1990s, when some of the city’s prominent businessmen heard that Perez and Pimentel were applying to medical school, they knew it was vital to get them to come back to serve their hometown.
The late Harold McArthur, a town leader and owner of the local farm implement dealership, made the young men an extraordinary offer: He would, through a charitable foundation of which he was executor, pay all of their University of Colorado Medical School costs. All they had to do in exchange was come back to Burlington and practice for one year.
“There was nothing legally binding,” Perez said. “Just our word and our handshake.”
Perez and Pimentel, sons of Mexican immigrants who settled in Burlington to work the fields, had been worried about how they would pay for medical school. They accepted the deal, returning to their hometown as doctors in 1999. That one year commitment turned into 13 years, and counting – they’re now giving their all to the community that gave them so much.
The doctors are just one example of a trend that’s only grown in recent years: young people who leave Burlington for college, then come back to raise their families once they reach their 30s. But you can’t rely on nostalgia for small-town life as the only draw, says Ken Viken. You have to give people something to do.
Viken is an insurance agent with an office on Main Street, but in his spare time he’s dedicated himself to overhauling Parmer Park – better known as “Rocket Park” – into a one-stop family fun destination. He leads a Rotary Club task force that’s gathered $800,000 toward that end. First on the agenda this summer is moving the 32-foot rocket (actually a rocket-shaped piece playground equipment) to a platform in the center of the park. Next, they’ll install a “splash park” – “60-foot diameter of water-filled mayhem” – at one end of Rocket Park, and put in an amphitheater “big enough for our own little Woodstock” at the other end, Viken said.
Viken also helps organize Burlington’s summer concert series. A lot of shows take place in the huge red barn on the Old Town grounds, while larger events can be accommodated in Burlington High School’s vast gymnasium. The city has gotten a minor reputation for the caliber of its concerts, and some bigger names, like country and western legend Michael Martin Murphey, best known for his 1975 hit “Wildfire,” have made Burlington a regular stop.