Sculpture of Millie Burling depicts a dancer, tooPublished 10:37pm Monday, May 10, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
“Aunt Millie” Burling, like Dance of Creation and Resting Dancer, was a dancer, too.
On with Life captures her sass and her determined stride as she dealt with a terminal diagnosis.
Her upraised hand both greets hospital visitors and reaches up as a believer would to God.
As a triune, Dance of Creation emerges from water, symbolic of an individual emerging from amniotic fluid into life. And she was the beginning for the arts in Dowagiac. Resting Dancer has performed, given it her best and is done.
The Grand Old City had the beginning of life and the end of life without the middle, where On with Life fits.
The three pieces complete the circle of life, from birth and endurance to death and rebirth.
As her nephew, Councilman Charles Burling, DDS, recalled Monday noon at the dedication of his family’s gift of Tuck Langland’s third of Dowagiac’s 12 public sculptures, she was a small woman who stood barely 5 feet tall.
“But from that little lady came a big amount of impact on my life,” he said.
Born Millie Elgin Lee on Aug. 19, 1917, in Dowagiac, “Somewhere during the second year of her life she was abandoned by her mother,” Burling related to a couple hundred people gathered at the new Borgess-Lee Memorial Hospital Emergency Department drive which wraps around On with Life.
“Her father returned from work at Round Oak and found her wandering the streets in the Cass Avenue area. Her mom left and took her infant brother with her and basically turned her out on the street. Being a working man, and not knowing how to raise a daughter, her dad turned to her Aunt Millie, and Aunt Millie raised Aunt Millie. In the Depression, they took in laundry to make ends meet, so she well realized the value of a dollar, of smart investing and of saving first and spending second. One of her greatest accomplishments was graduating from Dowagiac Central High School. During the Depression years that was not a common occurrence and it was something she took great pride in.”
Burling said Aunt Millie loved to read and “she also loved to dance. Ironically, the third piece, dedicated in her memory, is accompanied by two other dancers. She was quick to point out that she loved to go to dances, but she always told the boys, ‘I’m only here to dance.’
“She finally met her match in my Uncle Lyle. They fell in love, married and their marriage created a son, Lee Robert, who was born with a diagnosis of the time of severe mental retardation. Although he grew up structurally and staturally, his IQ never exceeded that of a 1-year, 6-month-old child. As he grew in stature, he became too much for her to handle. In his early teens, after he hit puberty and became a typical thick-shouldered, thick-headed Burling, they were forced to place him in a home in Watertown, Wis. Shortly after retirement, my Uncle Lyle had a massive heart attack in their home and passed away. She was a widow for a few years. She bought a green Volkswagen and traveled around the country. She was pretty independent and pretty sassy.”
Aunt Millie met Drexel Fisher of Dowagiac. He became her second husband, but succumbed a few years into the marriage from complications from emphysema. She hit the road again until marrying Virgil Hilliard.
After he died, she was heard to say, “I married your uncle for love, Drexel for security and Virgil for fun.”
“She always joked that marriage was like baseball,” Burling said. “Three strikes you’re out. She said marriage was the same way: ‘Three husbands and I’m out. On top of that, if I don’t quit, I’m having quite a negative impact on the male population of the community.’
“She spent many years alone. She was a social lady, but forced into a lifestyle where she was alone and reflected on her life. As her health declined in her later years, she sought care at Dowagiac. She always referred to this as ‘my hospital.’ Her condition worsened and she had to go to Borgess Medical Center for more advanced help. She was in the middle of a conversation when a doctor walked in and said, ‘Millie, your condition is terminal. We have no more science, no more medicine to help you. You need to make arrangements to go to a nursing home to live out the rest of your life.’ Her reaction was, if that’s the way the Lord is going to take me, then that’s the way the Lord is going to take me. She continued the conversation she was having. No change in facial expression. No remorse. We brought her back to Dowagiac and had her at Forest Glen. One afternoon I was sitting there talking with her and she said, ‘Chuck, I’ve led a very good life.’
“I thought, you were abandoned and every man you’ve come into contact with you’ve lost one way or another and now your life is slipping away from you and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ She said, ‘The Lord has been with me always,’ and I realized that through all those challenging incidents she had experienced, her faith was incredibly strong, and that’s where she drew her strength.”
Burling joined the hospital Board of Trustees in 1997 and has chaired it for 10 years.
“I deeply, deeply love this hospital and the individuals who live here,” he said, recalling the Joint Commission survey which evaluated hospital safety and care compliance a few weeks ago.
“Her closing remarks will stick in my heart always,” Burling said. “She said, ‘I normally don’t say this with an exit survey, but if I had to seek medical care, I would have no qualms about coming to Borgess-Lee Hospital. It’s a great facility, maintained well and you have a wonderful staff,’ incredible people who symbolize the spirit of this piece.”
Langland, of Granger, Ind., called Mrs. Mathews Dowagiac’s “MVP – most valuable player – for the difference one person can make. She started a long time ago with the dream of putting these sculptures around town. Dowagiac is now famous across the country for having probably more sculptures per-capita than any town in the country, with the possible exception of Loveland, Colo. They have made such a difference to this town. The Burlings, and people like the Burlings, made all of these sculptures possible by deciding to do something real for their town, and not to just talk about it.”
“The idea for On with Life is simple,” Langland said.
“You find yourself in the doctor’s office and the doctor has some bad news for you. You either have a very short time remaining to live or perhaps your life is being changed profoundly. What do you do? Go home and curl up in the fetal position and suck your thumb? No. On with Life! She’s striding away from the hospital, into the world. She’s got a smile on her face, her hand in the air. the scarf blowing over her shoulder. She’s a positive, joyous and upbeat person. But that’s the simple level.
“On a a little deeper level is the question what about the rest of us? All of us are living under a death sentence. Without getting morbid about it, all of us have a short, finite time here on Earth, from birth to death. We don’t know when death is coming, but we do know this – we’re alive today, and life is to be lived, and that’s what this sculpture is about. Living life each day. Be kind to people, find joy in life, being kind to the earth we live on and voting Democratic – that’s for Fred” Mathews.
“I love this town and what’s happening here,” Langland said. “You’re not finished yet. The sculpture program moves forward. On with Dowagiac and On with Life.”
Joy Strand, administrator and chief operating officer of the hospital, commented, “We believe that the spirit reflected in On with Life is a true example of the care and hope we strive to provide our patients and their families. I want to thank Richard Brosnan for the landscaping. They were out here Saturday in pouring rain and sleet planting … I’m certain if the weather ever warms up, the plantings will be stunning.”
Warm weather will also allow completion of the retaining wall so it blends in with the ED addition.
“I want to thank everyone for the continued use of our services,” Strand said, “and sharing your success stories with your friends and families. It’s through your support that our continued progress is possible. We are very fortunate to have Dr. Burling’s exceptional leadership on the Board of Trustees. We truly hope he continues for many years to come being part of the great family of Borgess-Lee. It’s with their warm hearts that Chuck and Kathy have made this day possible with their inspiring gift, On with Life. What a relevant and meaningful gift this is – particularly in a hospital setting. Through these doors, in this building, are skilled, dedicated medical professionals who 24/7, 365 days a year, provide care and healing to the sick and injured so you and your loved ones can go On with Life.”
Burling, 1968 co-valedictorian with Rick Smith and co-recipient of the All-Sports Award with his best friend, Chris Taylor, said, “I’ve always thought of Thelda (Mathews, chair of the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival Visual Arts Committee) as the lady who wrote the book on class. I’ll believe that until I die. She is an incredible, wonderful lady with a vision who has really begun to put us on the map. For that, we love her and we deeply appreciate all she does.”
“On behalf of all of the thousands of people who are going to be enjoy and take inspiration from this statue over the generations to come,” Mayor Donald D. Lyons said, “I gratefully and thankfully accept it on behalf of everyone.”
Beeson Street Grill served a lunch of sandwiches, potato salad and cole slaw at a tent sent up adjacent to the hospital in Farr Park, where 1995′s Dance of Creation is located and from where 1999′s Resting Dancer next to City Hall is visible.