Burton Housman was born in Dallas, Texas during the Roaring 20’s. At the age of 14, he saved his allowance, rode his bicycle four miles to a nearby airport and took flying lessons on a Piper Cub J-3 earning his pilot’s license. Flying was his dream. Unfortunately, poor eyesight kept him from a career as a pilot.
After graduating from a prep school, he was just in time to serve in the Armed Forces near the end of World War II in airborne electronics and then attended Caltech and Oberlin. Active in the Student Christian Movement, he became aware of the horizontal arm of the cross, an abiding symbol of his faith, making a difference in how he looked at the world and what he did in the world.
Burton spent three years in Japan as part of the Methodist church’s program to form work camps where he lived with a Japanese family and learned Japanese. He worked together with Japanese youth to clean up debris from fire bombs in Osaka, helped rebuild a bridge and picked up glass from windows of a kindergarten that were melted by heat from the fires. Henceforth, “I looked at the world through that melted glass, seeing a promise that could be realized only if the constant search for alternatives to war were never abandoned.”
That experience drew him to the Quakers and to Pendle Hill, a Quaker Study Center. He became a member of a Friends Meeting where he met Joanna Ayers. They were married under the care of the Meeting and raised four children.
It soon became clear that half of the books he was reading were written by faculty at Harvard Divinity School, where he subsequently attended for three years earning the degree of BD and was honored to be selected to give the Hebrew Oration at his commencement.
Burton then taught at Olney Friends School in Ohio. “These were my most trying and happiest years as a teacher. Many of the students I had are still my friends.” He marched with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma and taught at small schools until he accepted an invitation as an associate at the Caltech YMCA program. There he learned about the social action arm of the Los Angeles Council of Churches and worked as a community organizer.
From there in 1971, he was tapped by Beverly Hills Maple Center to design their distinguished program for community counseling. Here he met Mary Jo Mc Dermoth who became the director of training. In 1978 Burton and Mary Jo were married under the care of Orange Grove Meeting. They were blessed to share 40 years together and were each other’s compass and guiding lights.
In 1980 they went to Japan for four years while Burton taught at Kwansei Gakuin University while Mary Jo studied from a National Treasure of weaving and taught English.
In recent years, when asked “What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?” he responded, “My work at the Beverly Hills Maple Center; being invited to class reunions for Olney Friends School years 1962, ‘63 and ‘64; and giving the Hebrew Oration at commencement from Harvard Divinity School.”
In his 80’s, desperate to atone for the war in Iraq and its losses, he left secondary school teaching to become a volunteer for several years with the Armed Forces YMCA at the naval hospital in San Diego. He helped catastrophically wounded active duty Marines write about their lives. He also was very involved with the Islamic Center of San Diego and he and Mary Jo became good friends of the Imam and his family.
When asked, “What is your Faith?,” Burton responded, “Psalm 103 and Augustine say it all.” Also, “I recognized that I am an Honorary Jew and an Honorary Muslim.” Burton had a long, rich history as a Friend. He was a member of Meetings in four Yearly Meetings and wrote articles for several Quaker periodicals.
He spent his last years working on behalf of relationships with our neighbor, Mexico. To that end Burton studied Spanish and visited Mexico City several times as a Quaker presence at the Casa de Los Amigos. His last trip was only months before his stroke and was a highlight of his latter days.
He visited all Meetings in the Southern California Quarter to share his experiences, and advocated for funds to be set aside for volunteers from San Diego to visit the Casa, and requested travel expenses for Mexico City Quakers to attend Southern California Quarterly Meetings. He applauded the AFSC work in San Diego with immigration and border challenges.
Burton held close to the Quaker queries and thought the Quaker advices “too “preachy” for his tastes. He was an active member in La Jolla Meeting, served on several committees and took a special interest in making newcomers feel welcome. He is remembered for his deep integrity, and as always does with integrity, that came at a price. He had a keen intellect, a wide curiosity and a robust sense of humor.
While Burton was a patient at Sharp Acute Rehabilitation Center and unable to receive visitors, the La Jolla and San Diego Meetings, his daughter, and personal friends met weekly at the Rehabilitation Center to hold silent worship outside of Burton’s room. It was a profound healing time.
As a tribute to the person that he was, his memorial service was crowded with Quakers from several Meetings, family from far away, and friends from all walks of life. He truly was one who “let his life speak.” We will greatly miss his presence.