Don was the second of H. Marsh and Alice Burley’s four children. He grew up in Worthington, W.Va., with loving parents and not realizing they were poor.
“He allowed that level of poverty to change him in a good way,” said daughter Julie White of Wichita, Kan. “He grew up in a multicultural community where he loved everyone.”
In high school, Don played football, basketball and baseball and was in the marching band, joining the band for the halftime show in his football uniform with his trumpet.
Don was proud that his high school football coach was the father of Nick Saban, current head coach of the University of Alabama’s football team.
It was swimming in college that really distinguished Don. He held three West Virginia state swimming records while a student at Fairmont State College, where he met Mary Sue McMillin, also from north central West Virginia.
“He learned to swim as a little boy and kept it up,” Mary Sue said.
Don taught his three children to swim. Over the years, he also enjoyed golf, tennis, fishing and watching the birds at the bird feeders outside the picture window of their Van Lear home.
Don and Mary Sue dated for about two years before getting married Aug. 23, 1958 in Clarksburg, W.Va. Despite what Mary Sue describes as opposite personalities, they complemented each other.
“You were a team,” said son Bruce Burley of Boonsboro.
Mary Sue was attracted to his “quiet intelligence.”
“I will certainly miss him dearly,” she said. “He was just the best.”
Don majored in industrial management and, after college, began a 39-year career working for Monongahela Power and Allegheny Power. Don’s job took the family to West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and back to Maryland.
Mary Sue said they ran into a former employee of Don’s while grocery shopping and the young man told Don how honored he was to have worked for him.
“He cared about the people he worked with and their families,” Bruce said.
Don retired about 16 years ago as plant manager of the R. Paul Smith Power Station in Williamsport and district manager of power generation.
Mary Sue, who was two years younger, was an elementary school teacher for 31 years and retired a year or so after her husband.
While grateful for a job that supported his family, his faith in God and his family were his top priorities.
“He came straight home after work and spent time with us,” Julie said. “He was a family man. He didn’t have to say it, he showed it.”
Don and Mary Sue were longtime members at First Christian Church, finding a church home wherever they lived. Their family worshiped regularly on Sundays and the church community provided another way for Don to help others.
Don also made other children his priority through coaching several age groups of youth baseball and high school cross country. Concerned that not all children who tried out for National Little League would be chosen for a major league team, Don was instrumental in starting a minor league, which included constructing minor league fields.
“He cared so much about those little boys,” Mary Sue said. “They had tryouts and some were eliminated. They had no place to play if they didn’t make the team.”
Don was president of National Little League for three years.
“He didn’t make a whole lot of distinction between his kids and other kids,” Bruce said. “Some of the fondest memories are of him coaching. He loved baseball and knew a lot about baseball.”
Don had taken a real interest in the Hagerstown Suns when Bryce Harper was playing for the team. Bruce and his son, Brandon Burley, both dentists, attended with Don and saw about three-quarters of the home games the season Harper was in Hagerstown despite Don’s battle with macular degeneration and limited vision.
“I’d call and he’d never say no,” Bruce said.
They made several trips to Washington, D.C., to see Harper play with the Washington Nationals.
“I’m so glad we did that,” said Bruce, adding that Don’s obituary photo was taken at Nationals Park.
In addition to his baseball teams, Don cheered for the West Virginia University Mountaineers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. When WVU joined the Big 12 this season, Don told his youngest grandchild, Celia White, a student at Kansas State, that he wouldn’t be able to root for her team when they played WVU.
The three grandchildren called Don “Pops” and Mary Sue “Gammy.”
“He was a jokester, really funny,” Celia said.
About 10 years ago, Don had Mary Sue make him a “huge” Christmas stocking that hung from the fireplace mantle to the hearth, mainly to tease Celia.
In all the years it hung on the fireplace, Don never got anything in his stocking, not even a lump of coal. This year, he got a note from Santa that said, “Ho ho ho.”
“I said, ‘That’s Santa laughing at you,’” Celia said.
Bruce said his father wasn’t quick to offer advice, which was part of his wisdom.
“He’d say, ‘I’m not going to tell you what to do, but ...’” Bruce said.
“Our dad wasn’t just smart, but wise, unassuming,” Julie said. “He knew about world issues and life.”
When Julie complained about the jobs she had in college, Don recited a poem to her for inspiration.
“As a guidance thing, he was soft-spoken,” Mary Sue said. “That was his demeanor.”
“We all knew we had to do well in school and go to college,” said daughter Jodie Burley of Williamsport.
When the children were younger, with both parents working full time, Mary Sue would fold the laundry and sort it into piles for each family member, which they were supposed to put away. The kids didn’t take action as asked, so Don turned it into a family project, having them line up behind him and handing them their stacks, while he whistled the tune to “The Bridge on the River Kwai” as they completed the chore.
“You had to know Dad,” Julie said. “It sounds odd, but it was fun.”
On Dec. 27, Don and Mary Sue’s first great-grandchild was born five weeks premature to Bruce’s daughter, Allison Kappler, and her husband, Andrew, in Lynchburg, Va. Don joked that they should name him Bryce, but they chose Carter Lee. Lee was Don’s middle name as well.
Don got to see photos of Carter, who came home from the hospital the same day Don was buried.
A voracious reader, Don devoured Reader’s Digest, National Geographic, historical fiction and spy thrillers. Julie remembers Don taking them as children to the Williamsport Library and she said it seemed like he never limited the number of books they could check out.
The Burleys always had cats, but Don was never fond of them until Yeti, an overly affectionate yellow tabby, joined the family six years ago. When Don would sleep in his chair, Yeti would lay on his stomach and they’d nap together.
“He and Dad were best buddies,” Jodie said.
Don had had several lengthy health issues, but his death after sustaining a head injury in a fall took the family by surprise.
Bruce wrote a poem to honor his dad, written more as therapy for himself, that was read by the pastor at Don’s memorial service. It painted a picture of a devoted husband and father, a humble man with a strong work ethic who lived a good life.
“That’s my dad,” Bruce said.
Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Donald L. Burley, who died Jan. 9 at the age of 76. His obituary was published in the Jan. 10 edition of The Herald-Mail.