Wesley Burnham

Published: 6/7/2018 3:00:08 AM

Thetford, Vt. — Wesley Burnham, 95, died on Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, 2018, a fitting departure for a D-Day veteran and World War II hero. Born on Oct. 28, 1922, in Brooklyn, N.Y., he passed peacefully at his Thetford home, surrounded by family, in the house built by his ancestor, William Burnham, one of Thetford’s earliest settlers.

Wes showed kindness to all he met, strangers and friends alike. He valued his neighbors, as they valued him. Wes never failed to wave at a passing car, or to welcome visitors into his home. He would lend anyone advice, a tool, even an acre or two for animals needing pasture, as his old-time neighbors did for him. Right up until his last days, folks remarked on his dry sense of humor, friendliness and the twinkle in his eye.

Growing up in the Great Depression, Wes lost his father at a young age and took whatever work a 12-year-old could find to support his mother, including delivering newspapers and working long hours at a local soda fountain. In high school, he found a job with the New York Central Railroad, which began his lifelong love of trains and marked the beginning of a career as a renowned telegrapher. Although telegraphy would soon become obsolete, Wes maintained his skills as a member of the Morse Telegraph Club, able to publicly demonstrate, even recently, a level of telegraphic dexterity and speed that outpaced email transmission.

When World War II broke out, Wes enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division. As a frontline soldier, he was among the first to land on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, and later liberated Paris, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and pushed on to Germany, sleeping in foxholes, haystacks, and the occasional barn during the harsh winter of 1944-1945, before witnessing the end of the war in Europe. Like many of his generation, he rarely talked about the horrors but remarked that “the war would have been a great experience if he had known in advance he wasn’t going to die in it.”

Wes strongly felt the pull of an ancestral line that goes back to 1775, when the first Burnhams migrated to Vermont from Connecticut. He was proud of his ancestors, especially his namesake Sherburne Wesley Burnham (SWB), a renowned astronomer who was born in the same Burnham house, educated in a one-room schoolhouse in Thetford, and became a professor of astronomy at the University of Chicago. In 1958, Wes and his wife Helen moved into the family homestead, spending years restoring the house, which lacked running water and other modern conveniences, and clearing the surrounding fields. Ever the traditionalist, Wes lived simply, lovingly tending his Holstein cows, his meadows and his forests. Some of his best summers were spent haying with the Osgood family whose dairy farm abutted his property, then cooling off in the old Pompy swimming hole. He believed in hard work, a little hardship (which he considered character-building) and always living up to one’s word. He preferred to seal a deal with a handshake and never had much interest in lawyers and bureaucrats.

Hidden from view, perhaps, was his keen intellect: he followed politics, had lifelong interests in art, music, and literature and maintained a deep knowledge of local lore and town history. He was also a walker who often “stretched his legs” by walking to Thetford Hill and back. He hiked most of the White and Green Mountains, sometimes with family; more often with his friend Louis Hunter, his nearest neighbor on Burnham Road. At one point (decades ago), he knew just about everyone in town, especially the regulars at Gray’s Auction and Huggett’s, as well as all the folks at church.

For the past 10 years, Wes found great happiness in his friendship with Martha, a woman he considered practically perfect. Over the years, Wes and Martha crisscrossed the U.S. by train, wintered together in Myrtle Beach and walked many miles through woods and fields hand-in-hand. As his health deteriorated, Martha stood by him and comforted him, filling his final days with love.

Predeceased by his first wife, Helen, to whom he was happily married for more than 40 years, and by his second wife, Mary; he is survived by his beloved companion Martha Drake, of Norwich; and by his daughters Rika Burnham, husband Joe Graham, of New York City; and Laurie Burnham, husband Adam Sorscher, of Thetford; son Ray Burnham, of St. Louis; and by his two granddaughters, Linnea Burnham of Thetford and Ava Burnham of New York.

Wes will be sorely missed by his family and those who knew him well. Like other members of the “Greatest Generation,” his kind is hard to come by. The family expresses deep gratitude to Elise Stigum, Betty Martin, the Thetford Fast Squad, and a host of neighbors and caregivers who befriended Wes in his last year, including Linda Doss, Gil Welch, Lyn Julacki, Susan Arnold, Syd Veysey, Cindy Griegel, Dan Bragg, Ken and Diana Durkee, and Chris and Sarah Jo Brown.

A memorial service is planned for July.

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