You were never ignored by Betty Burlingame.

If you needed something, she got it for you. If you needed help, she jumped right in. She was a volunteer at soup kitchens and libraries.

“She helped so much I would get angry at her,” said son Gary Burlingame. “I’d say, ‘Why are you doing all that?’ But her focus was always on serving others. She got her energy from everyone else’s happiness.”

Mrs. Burlingame, 89, died Sunday, April 26, at Wesley Enhanced Living Pennypack Park of dementia and complications from COVID-19.

Born in 1931, Mrs. Burlingame grew up around the copper mines of Hancock, Mich., on the Keweenaw Peninsula. A second-generation from Finland, she had four sisters and seven brothers, and they played kick-the-can and rolled tires down the street to pass time. Her mother, Emma, died when Mrs. Burlingame was 14. Her father, Big Al, was the Hancock chief of police.

After high school, Mrs. Burlingame worked for a printer and then as a clerk in the ROTC office at Michigan Technological University. It was there she met John Burlingame, a student at MTU and an Army ROTC member.

At first, Mrs. Burlingame balked at a date because John didn’t have “proper clothes.” But she relented, and they were engaged eight months later. They married in June 1955.

Mrs. Burlingame and husband John were married for 64 years.
Courtesy of the family
Mrs. Burlingame and husband John were married for 64 years.

As an Army officer, John was stationed at the Frankford Arsenal, so he and Mrs. Burlingame moved to Philadelphia and rented an apartment on Rising Sun Avenue. Mrs. Burlingame worked for a time on the customer complaint phones at Sears but stopped after sons Michael and Gary were born.

A favorite family story is that Gary is named after Gary Cooper, Mrs. Burlingame’s favorite actor, because she thought she was having a girl and needed a boy’s name fast.

After a few years, the family moved to Benner Street in the Mayfair section of Philly. They liked to camp and fish, and Mrs. Burlingame, a den mother for the local Boy Scouts, took her sons swimming and hiking. She often invited other neighborhood children, who otherwise might not have been able to experience such activities, to go along with the family.

Mrs. Burlingame (second from left in middle row) and her family.
Courtesy of the family
Mrs. Burlingame (second from left in middle row) and her family.

She was a gourmet in the kitchen, and her family still recalls the scent of “pastries, pies, cakes, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cookies, oatmeal cookies, Christmas cookies, brownies, and bread.”

John Burlingame was transferred to the Picatinny Arsenal near Dover, N.J., in 1977, and the couple lived in Budd Lake, N.J. They moved back to Philadelphia after he retired in 1989 to be closer to their sons and family.

Once she had grandchildren, Mrs. Burlingame liked to share with them songs she had heard her family sing back in Michigan, such as “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Hallelujah,” and “Goodnight Irene.”

She and her husband were married for 64 years until he died in May 2019.

“She was such a good example for us,” her son said.

In addition to her sons, Mrs. Burlingame is survived by five grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and other family members.

Gary Miles, gmiles@inquirer.com