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Columbia Missourian

Betty Burns was inspiring home economics teacher, active community member

By Atiya Abbas, Carlin Wagner
September 27, 2013 | 12:06 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Betty Burns taught home economics for 30 years. She was an inspiring teacher and member of her community whose recipes remain favorites of her family, former students and friends.

 "She was an outstanding teacher," said her daughter, Barbara Mendenhall. "I wanted to be an English teacher, but I switched my major to home economics  because she was that good. She was my inspiration."

Elizabeth "Betty" Whitfield Burns died Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013. She was 94.

She was born Jan. 18, 1919, in Oronogo to Leslie and Birdie Whitfield.

She graduated from Alba High School and, at age 16, enrolled in classes at MU.

Mrs. Burns' father decided that his six children would get an education, despite the Great Depression, Mendenhall said. He paid $50 for each semester at MU.

She earned a bachelor's degree in home economics education in 1939. During her time at MU, she participated in basketball, swimming and field hockey. In her senior year, she was awarded the M Blanket for being the outstanding female athlete.

In 1973, Mrs. Burns earned a master's degree in education at MU. Five years later, MU's College of Education presented her with the Citation of Merit for her excellence as a high school teacher. In 1998, MU created the Dynasty Award to recognize three generations of her family as dedicated alumni of the Human Environmental Sciences College.

"She, my daughter and myself have been awarded that scholarship for our alumni spirit and commitment to (the College of Human Environmental Sciences)," Mendenhall said.

Mrs. Burns met her husband, Robert H. Burns, in college, and they began dating during her first year of teaching. On June 21, 1942, they were married in Oronogo. He died May 4, 1970.

Mrs. Burns inspired eight of her home economics students to pursue the same career. She spent the majority of her career teaching at Fayette High School; after 26 years there, she retired in 1981.

"She was so dedicated to education," Mendenhall said. "The Whitfield family has been awarded 70 degrees by MU. When she moved to The Neighborhoods by Tiger Place, nothing pleased her more than interacting with college kids."

Mrs. Burns was also an involved member in her community. Under her leadership, the Future Homemakers of America chapter was brought to statewide prominence with nine state officers and three national officers.

She served on state curriculum committees and accreditation panels throughout Missouri. She was a member of the Mizzou Alumni Association, Alpha Delta Kappa, Phi Upsilon Omicron and the Missouri Retired Teachers Association. She also was a member of the Promoting Educational Opportunities sisterhood for 60 years, a past president of Chapter HK and a volunteer at Columbia Regional Hospital for 28 years.

Despite being very devoted to her career and the community, Mrs. Burns was never too busy for her family. She enjoyed making Christmas ornaments for her grandchildren.

"Now, each of them has a set of ornaments by her," Mendenhall said — 30 for each grandchild.

Mrs. Burns also loved traveling, reading, playing bridge and quilting. 

Going out to lunch at the University Club was one of her favorite ways to entertain guests from out of town, Mendenhall said.

"She had this special place where she sat to have the perfect view of Jesse Hall," Mendenhall said.

Mrs. Burns and her husband bought seats to attend MU football games in 1948 and basketball games in 1976, and she attended every MU home football and basketball game until she was 90.

Mrs. Burns is survived by a daughter, Barbara Mendenhall, and her husband, Ray, of Burlington, Iowa; a son, James Robert Burns, and his wife, Tara, of Neenah, Wis.; three granddaughters, Keri Mendenhall of Burlington, Iowa, Amy Alvord and her husband, Gordon, of Maple Valley, Wash., and Addie Consani and her husband, Brice, of Gex, France; a grandson, Brandon Burns, and his wife, Katy, of Osseo, Minn.; five great-grandchildren, Scott and Ryan Alvord of Maple Valley, Wash., Quinn and Zoe Burns of Osseo, Minn., and Paige Consani of Gex, France; a sister, Marjorie Livingston of St. Louis; a brother, Jim Whitfield of Oronogo; and several nieces and nephews.

Her husband and three sisters, Mary Emma Gibson, Dorothy Willhoyte and Frances Evans, died earlier.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 4 at Linn Memorial United Methodist Church in Fayette. Visitation will be from 10 to 10:45 a.m. Interment will be in the Fayette City Cemetery with Friemonth-Freese Funeral Service in charge of arrangements.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the MU Dynasty Award Scholarship, P.E.O. Program for Continuing Education or the Fayette Alumni Association Scholarship Fund.