At 105, Bill Burden has done it all and changed with the times
Editor's note: Burden died Feb. 27, 2013, at age 105 of congestive heart failure.
Bill Burden was born the same year as the state of Oklahoma.
Even still, age doesn't restrict Bill from navigating a world vastly different from his childhood. Bill, a 105-year-old resident of Mount Pleasant, sometimes browses news on his laptop plugged in near his recliner, next to a big bucket of cheese balls. His cell phone is on a stand nearby.
Bill’s wife, Marie, leans around the corner and calls him to eat dinner she prepared in the kitchen. It’s 12:30 p.m.
Bill has been a Mount Pleasant resident since 1930. He and Marie, 97, live in the same house they bought soon after they married in 1933. Bill said he bought it for $700. He installed electricity and plumbing.
But his age doesn't keep him in the house at 700 Adams St. He leaves each morning and walks to the soup kitchen across the street. He can't leave Marie at home for long because of her dementia.
Bill, originally from Newark, Ohio, came to Mount Pleasant to help build workers’ barracks and other construction on the oil fields around town. He worked with Marie's father there.
As the oil industry stabilized, flattened and then left town, Bill built Mount Pleasant as a construction worker.
When he first arrived to town, he lived temporarily in the Bennett Hotel and then eventually lived with his brother-in-law next door to the house he later bought on Adams Street, the only two houses standing among new lots that were listed at $5. At the time, there were no trees and only Main Street was paved.
Bill’s son Don remembers the land was very open and devoid of trees.
“I remember coming here as a kid, and you could see the train pass all the way across to Broadway (Street),” Don said.
He doesn’t know how many buildings he worked on. Among the number of churches, homes, stores and Central Michigan University buildings, Bill lost count.
“Oh, geez,” Bill said. “Quite a few.”
Bill helped construct the Anna M. Barnard Residence Hall that opened in 1948 and housed 400 students. It was demolished in 1997.
It’s safe to say Bill has led a quiet life in Mount Pleasant, but it has never been dull. For a man who’s met Marilyn Monroe twice and has a picture of Patsy Cline on his lap, age hasn’t confined him to his home. Former President George W. Bush wished Bill a happy birthday a few years ago.
He still has a valid driver's license, which will expire in 2016, when Bill will be 109.
For 35 years, Bill and Marie spent the winters in Florida. Last winter, at the age of 104, Bill drove all the way there. Family convinced them to stay this winter, but Don is worried that their health might diminish as the cold lowers their immune systems. Nonetheless, their house is kept at 80 degrees.
He’s still very physically active. He still rides a bike. As a kid, he worked for Western Union as a telegram deliveryman and rode his bike for miles delivering messages.
Besides Bill’s skill as a construction worker, he’s also still a handyman. If the weather is warm, he works on small projects in his shop. He has to keep busy — he's been retired for more than half a century.
Over the years, he’s made everything from coffee tables to tractors and trucks for both himself and friends. He took apart a Renault car in the 1960s and built a small tractor with which to plow snow in front of the garage. It has 25,065 miles and still starts on the first try.
Bill used to take Don to the junk yard to dump parts, but since Bill was such a handyman and never liked to waste, they also took what they needed.
“We spent a lot of time at the dump, right, Dad?” Don said, looking at Bill.
Bill, shielding his eyes from the sun with his blue hat, nodded.
“We came back with more than we took over,” he said.
Don continues the craftsmanship that defined Bill’s life and determined his legacy in Mount Pleasant.
Don built a home designed by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright for David Elgin Dodge, the grandson of Horace Elgin Dodge, who co-founded what is today known as Dodge vehicles.
Bill raised 500 chickens at a time behind their home. They sold the chickens and eggs were sold to Kroger.
Bill has five generations of grandchildren who have his ingenuity and improvisational skills.
"I've worked with my dad," Don said as he watched his father. "I've learned a lot"