With Valentine's Day approaching, I'm reminded of the privilege I had as a writer to witness a special love story, and would like to share it again... A few years have passed since I accepted the invitation of my neighbor, author and columnist Jim Coogan, to give a talk to the Sandwich Men’s Club on my book Nature’s Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess. Good questions followed the presentation, but one stayed with me: “What kind of man was Thornton Burgess?” It was not a difficult question to answer. You don’t spend four and a half years researching and writing about one individual without getting to know your subject as well as, if not better than, family. It’s a question I had to wrestle with when organizing Burgess’ biography. Understanding his personal and professional relationships, character, and personality had to precede writing about his illustrious career path as a renowned writer and naturalist. As I stood before the audience, thinking how to best describe Thornton Burgess, much ran through my mind. I immediately pictured him as mid- to late life photographs showed him: a substantial man, six feet tall, glasses, pleasant, amiable, with a certain lightness about him that suggested a ready sense humor. I thought of the man who understood young children so well and wrote stories for them for more than 50 years, who cared passionately for the welfare of wild animals. “He was a gentle man,” I began and went on to elaborate on that and other qualities. Later, however, I realized that I had failed to mention one vitally important trait in Thornton Burgess, a trait easy to miss in a man whose professional output and success had been so visibly his measure. He was, in fact, a man who loved deeply. My confidence in that comes less from knowing the height of his happiness in love than knowing the bottomless depth of his sorrow in love’s loss. Thornton Burgess was married twice. In 1905 he married Nina Osborne, 24, an adorable and popular young woman who shared his love of the outdoors enough to agree to a tent camping honeymoon in the Adirondacks. He called her his “little girl,” and indeed she looked it. Four hundred people attended their wedding and about half that number came to the reception at their home. Ten months later the same minister who had presided over the joyous wedding conducted a funeral service for Nina who had died the day after giving birth to a baby boy. Unbearably anguished and distraught, Burgess was unable to attend. Within a year he had married the woman he adored, witnessed or learned of her death, and become a father.
Written about eight months after Nina died, journal excerpts quoted in Nature’s Ambassador depict his loss:
“I have scattered a few flowers on the grave of Her who was the light of my life and who only a year ago so bravely and cheerfully looked forward to her hour of traivel [sic]. I shall try at least to be cheerful. I owe it to my friends. But O I am so lonely… “It is thirty-three weeks tonight since my little girl entered the larger life and still I cannot reconcile myself. Still I cry “Why? Why? Why? Why is faith so poor a comforter?” “Thirty-eight weeks ago tonight that my little girl was taken ill. I’ve lived years. I wonder when and where I shall meet her. God help me to guide her boy right.” He had no choice but to rally. There were bills to pay and mouths to feed, for his mother Caroline and infant son Thornton W. Burgess III were dependent on him. Five years later he remarried to Fannie Johnson, the widow of Burgess’ colleague at Phelps Publishing and the mother of two teenagers. In the decades that followed, the Burgesses provided a reliable core of financial and emotional support for their three children and 10 grandchildren.
When Fannie died from various health problems in 1950, Burgess, then 74, was completely devastated. “My Lady (his nickname for her), my beloved, passed at 9:15 and my heart is broken,” he wrote. “I am utterly desolate…” In the effort to hold himself together, he found refuge in three activities: writing, driving out into the western Massachusetts hills, and visiting friends and familiar places on Cape Cod. But beyond these diversions he grieved to the depth of his being. Reading through his journals I began to notice something unusual in the entries that followed Fannie’s death. Each one started with the same words: “I’m glad I belong to you - my Lady.” Surprised by the repetition, I turned to the next week. Every entry began exactly the same way. I continued turning pages and discovered that week after week, month after month, for a full year, Thornton Burgess began his journal with those tender words of Fannie’s that reminded him of their lives together, words he wrapped around his twice-broken heart like a poultice: “I’m glad I belong to you.” Burgess was remarkably generous to his family members, supporting them as family had supported him and his mother in their poverty in Sandwich. He forgave infuriating (and costly) youthful transgressions. He was a loyal and lifelong friend to many. And his love of nature and wildlife, the heart of his dozens of books and thousands of stories, lectures and radio programs, was sustained from childhood into his final days. By all accounts, Thornton Burgess was a man who loved deeply.