by Greg Presto
After his graduation in 1960 Ron Burton Sr. (SESP60) was one of the last students in his class to leave Northwestern’s Evanston campus. The All-American tailback had already signed with the Boston Patriots in the American Football League’s inaugural draft, but he was in no hurry to begin his new life as a professional football player. Instead, Burton went behind McCulloch Hall, where he had lived as a freshman, and out to Lake Michigan.
“And he cried,” Burton’s youngest son, Paul Burton (C96, GJ98), says. “He cried because of his love for Northwestern, a place that gave him so much to be thankful for.”
Ron carried that passion for his alma mater throughout his life as a professional football player (Burton was also a first-round draft pick in the National Football League and the Canadian Football League), businessman, father and philanthropist, serving the University as a local regent in the Boston area, president of the NU Club of Boston and a director of the John Evans Club. Ron, who passed away in 2003, received the Northwestern Alumni Association’s Service to Society Award in 2000 and an Alumni Service Award in 1978.
In recognition of his many accomplishments and contributions to the University, Northwestern dedicated the new Ron Burton Academic Advising Center in his honor last September (see “A Center that Nurtures Academic Excellence”). Located in the shadow of Ryan Field, where Ron built his College Football Hall of Fame credentials, the advising center provides student-athletes with state-of-the-art technology, larger study spaces and mentoring services. The improved facilities help athletes maximize their Northwestern education in a facility named for a man many consider the ideal student-athlete.
“I like that the word ‘academic’ is in the name,” Burton’s widow, JoAnn, says. “That’s what Ron always said: ‘Sports don’t last forever, but if you get a good education, you’ll succeed in life.’ He was proof.”
Growing up in rural Springfield, Ohio, Ron probably never envisioned that a building would be named for him. Born into a poor family, he lost everything but love. His mother died when he was only 12, and his father fell chronically ill soon after. Ron was left in the care of his grandmother, a gospel preacher.
“His family was all he had to steer him in the right direction,” Paul says. “Because of his grandmother, he was always involved with the church, and it was the scripture that transformed his mind and heart to believe that love is the most important thing a person can have.”
Hoping to keep him out of trouble, Ron’s grandmother enrolled him in the church’s choir. He would continue singing in the choir not just as a child but through high school and even during college.
“He always sang in choirs because that was the only place where people were always nice to one another,” Paul says. “I think involvement with the church is what made him so sweet and loving.”
While his family and the church instilled Ron with love, it was his high school football coach, Jim McDonald, who helped him develop the discipline that would shape his football career and his life. When Ron was in the eighth grade, McDonald told him that to succeed, he should rise at 4 a.m. each weekday and run seven miles. Ron did so almost every day for the rest of his life, including running with his sons.
“That run was torture to us when we were 9 or 10 years old,” says Ron and JoAnn’s 33-year-old son, Philip Burton (C94, GJ95, 96). “But he was with us every step of the way.”
The daily run made the undersized Ron Burton one of the fastest, strongest football players in Ohio. As he finished high school, Ron was offered scholarships to 47 different universities, and he was prepared to attend the football powerhouse Ohio State University. But a courtesy visit to Northwestern, then coached by the legendary Ara Parseghian, altered Ron’s fate forever.
Parseghian told the young running back that if he attended Northwestern, Ron would not only receive a top-notch education but would play — and defeat — the University of Oklahoma, the University of Michigan, the University of Notre Dame and Ohio State.
“My father described Ara as a handsome prince who spoke to him in a way that no one had before,” Paul says. “He told my father, ‘I don’t just want to go against the best and beat the best. I want to close them down.’”
Ron took Parseghian’s words not as a promise but as a challenge. Becoming one of the Wildcats’ greatest players, he helped Northwestern’s football team rise from the depths of a winless season to a 6-0 start in his senior year. Along the way, the team defeated the four powerhouses the coach had promised, and Ron was named All–Big Ten Conference, All-American and a Heisman Trophy finalist.
But it was more than football that instilled Ron with a passion for the University.
“Northwestern changed the way my father thought,” says Paul. “The students who surrounded him changed his level of thinking about every aspect of life and made him want to do great things.”
While a student at Northwestern, Ron discovered an appreciation for music, theater, architecture and nature. And he found one thing that he would love for all his life — his wife, JoAnn.
“We were at a party, and all of these star athletes were there from various schools,” says JoAnn, who was a student at the University of Illinois at the time. “And Ron walked up and ordered a milk. I wasn’t sure I’d heard right.”
But sure enough, Ron was drinking milk. “I thought to myself, this guy is really strong,” JoAnn says. “He was just a freshman around all of these older athletes, but he was walking his own walk.”
As he and JoAnn raised their family, Ron wanted his children to find their own way, too. Rather than regaling them with stories of his own successes, Ron encouraged the young Burtons to walk their own walk.
“He never talked about playing football,” Ron and JoAnn’s oldest son, Stephen Burton (C85, GJ88), says. “We had to hear how good he was from other people.”
“Ron didn’t put pressure on our kids to be good at sports,” JoAnn says. “He always just asked them if they had fun. He believed that if they had a good time, they would be glad they’d played.”
Each of Burton’s five children — Stephen, Elizabeth (WCAS85), Ron Jr. (WCAS88), Philip and Paul — found their own gait, but they all followed in their father’s footsteps to Northwestern. All four sons played Wildcat football on teams from 1981 to 1996.
“We shared so many of the same experiences,” Ron Jr. says of going to the same school as his siblings. “I lived with my brother Stephen. My sister, Elizabeth, dated my best friend. Northwestern has held us together.”
The Burtons’ Wildcat football experiences climaxed in 1995 when Paul (named second-team All?Big Ten) realized his father’s greatest on-field dream: playing for Northwestern in the Rose Bowl.
“I was just a punter, but my father’s dream came true through me,” Paul says. “I think it meant more to my father than it did to me.”
Paramount to their athletic successes was the fact that the Burton children came away from Northwestern with the same love and appreciation for the school as their father had.
“My father talked about Northwestern as this dream place, and he said it would change my life,” says Stephen. “And it’s been a dream come true for me. Northwestern has opened doors and presented opportunities I never would have had otherwise.”
As his children grew into adulthood, Ron remained a man of extraordinary discipline, kindness and spirituality. These qualities inspired his post-football success in business and charitable works.
“He said that the greatest thing is to be a servant,” says Stephen. “By giving, it comes back to you more than you can know.”
It was that spirit of serving that inspired Ron to start the Ron Burton Training Village in 1985. Set on a 305-acre plot in Hubbardston, Mass., the training village is a five-week summer camp for underprivileged and at-risk youth that uses athletics to teach teamwork, sportsmanship and moral conduct.
“It wasn’t until the camp that I saw what an impact he made as a man,” says Elizabeth. “Anyone can love their own kids. It takes a great man to spend your money on kids who aren’t yours and to love them.”
In many ways the program mirrors Ron’s own life, with young men seeking opportunities through academic study, athletic competition and a commitment to community outreach. And the similarities don’t end there. Each morning, all of the Training Village campers rise at 4:30 to complete a seven-mile run.
As he had with his own sons, Ron participated in the camp’s morning run, even as he battled bone cancer.
“He ran until he no longer could,” says Elizabeth. “Even on his deathbed he was still trying to counsel these kids.”
Cancer took Ron’s life in 2003, but his children continue to run the Ron Burton Training Village. Under their watch, the camp has grown to include about 100 campers each year from the Boston area and across the country. The program has expanded to include several weekend mini-camps sponsored by the Boston Red Sox. The training village has also attracted the attention of several universities, who tap the camp’s ranks for students and offer scholarships to its standout participants. And none of this would have been possible if Ron had followed the advice of his lawyer.
When he purchased the central Massachusetts land that would become the Ron Burton Training Village, Ron risked everything.
His lawyer insisted in writing that he not make the purchase, and a bank refused to lend him the funds. But Burton went ahead with the project, using his own money saved from years as an executive at John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. To Ron, bringing the camp to fruition was a matter of duty.
“He felt he had been given so much, so much to be thankful for,” says Paul. “He believed that he owed so much.”
The Ron Burton Academic Advising Center at Northwestern — like the Ron Burton Training Village — is a tremendous legacy to leave behind, but Ron’s children agree that their father’s greatest legacy is the same gift given to him by his grandmother years ago.
“As long as I’ve been alive, people have talked about what a great player my dad was, but he never mentioned it to me,” Philip says. “I got to see his real work: his gift of love.”
Greg Presto (J04) is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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