Growing up With AGAPE

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Growing Up With AGAPE | Dr. Jamie Burton

Good Morning, I am Jamie Burton, son of Tom and Chris Burton. Over a month ago Chandler asked me if I would be willing to speak at this morning’s breakfast in honor of the Tom Burton Society. His sales pitch included that these are people who loved my dad, and they are the strongest AGAPE supporters. He also said these are people who would not want to see a bunch of money spent for a speaker. So, now you see what that gets you. I imagine Chandler, you will gain approval from the group for next year to go ahead and pay for a speaker.

As I look through the audience today, I see many familiar faces. Many of whom have shown their love and support for AGAPE and my parents for the entire time they served the organization. For that, I want to formally thank you. It is this love and support that continued to keep them both encouraged in this work for over 30 years. I feel like you all knew my parents very well. Chandler asked me to just share with you about Tom and Chris, and what it was like growing up as their children, and around AGAPE. So, I realize some of what I will say this morning you already know and we can enjoy reminiscing together. I hope you leave this morning honored to have partnered in The Tom Burton Society, and even more passionate about AGAPE.

Dad grew up in Whites Creek, TN. The house was small, only two bedrooms and one bathroom and sat on a small farm. Dad had one younger brother, Johnny Lynn. The two were very close. John and his wife are actually here this morning. There are countless stories of the two boys growing up in the country. Of course, like all boys growing up in the country, there were lots of chores to do. My grandmother was very particular, and probably quite unreasonable with her standards for cleaning. This would be a much kinder and more politically correct description than my dad or uncle would offer. Growing up, I was often reminded how my dad had to clean the grout between the tile and the baseboards by scrubbing with a toothbrush.

My dad and uncle embraced the outdoors. My grandfather loved to hunt and fish, and passed this passion to his sons. I loved spending time fishing and hunting with my dad and granddad alike, and today greatly enjoy the time spent on the water or in the woods with my two sons. Dad was definitely blessed living in a loving Christian home. He learned the importance of marital commitment and faithfulness from the example of his parents, and also how to be a great father. The role of a loving and nurturing parent, and this loyalty served him well as he directed the work at AGAPE.

Through all of his life, dad appreciated and used humor. He loved to laugh. Even while enduring the most difficult phases of his life, he continued to find humor during challenge. He often used his personal experiences and stories as life lessons for us. He was an excellent listener and counselor. He always had great advice. There did not seem to be anything we could face, that he could not help by talking to us. Most of the time he changed our worry or frustration to laughter as he told stories of his past.

Shortly after I was born, my dad accepted a position at the Children’s Home of Lubbock, Texas.

Interestingly, about 10 years later, a good friend of Tom’s from college named Morris Reed, was serving on AGAPE’s Board of Directors. AGAPE was searching for a new Executive Director. Morris recommended his friend, Tom, for the job. We had lived in Lubbock for 9 years. My sister, Emily, was born there. We had great friends, belonged to a wonderful church, and had a loving community. However, moving back to Nashville, and the job at AGAPE was an opportunity that thrilled my dad. He had known Howard Justiss for over 10 years, and truly respected Mr. Justiss. Plus, Nashville was home. Almost all of our family lived there. Fast forward a dozen years and I had fallen in love with and married Lauren Reed, Morris’ daughter. So, yes, it is true I had an arranged marriage.

During these early years, AGAPE was located in an old house in Melrose. A couple of funny stories of that time: Dad always loved a good deal. The McDonald’s in Melrose satisfied two of his joys: the opportunity for a joke, and a good deal. On Sundays, sundaes were $0.29. I can’t tell you how many jokes were attempted interchanging the day of the week Sunday, and the ice cream treat, sundae, led to many Sunday afternoon trips to the Golden Arches on the way to the AGAPE building. Then, Monday nights the small hamburgers were $0.25 each. For $2 our family of 4 could get 8 of those burgers. In those days, many Agape newsletters and other mailers were brought home. Our family of four would often fold newsletters and stuff envelopes to prepare for mailing. My mom and dad did everything possible to help the ministry save money.

I share those stories and that background, not just because they are funny, but somehow those carried with dad from childhood to help form the man he was. A quality I am very proud of and appreciate greatly is the fact that all the people who knew my dad, knew the same man. Tom was of course very involved with AGAPE. He was also an elder at Harpeth Hills Church of Christ for over 20 years. He was past president and active member of the Brentwood Rotary. He was very involved and well known in the Brentwood community. Whether someone knew Tom as a family member, through AGAPE, church, Rotary, or the community, they knew the same man. He did not act differently in any of these groups.

Dad loved sports. He greatly enjoyed watching all kinds of sports. He used to ask me as we watched games together, who I was for. When I would ask him who he wanted to win, he was always for the underdog. I used to ask him why, you know they can’t possibly win. He loved seeing a team that beat the odds, proving others wrong. I think this is another reason he was so passionate about AGAPE. He loved the success stories about former foster kids and children that AGAPE helped place for adoption. Nothing gave him more joy than to hear how these children succeeded in academics, athletics, art, music, professionally or as leaders in the community. My dad clearly understood the obstacles and challenges so many children face. Society does not give everyone the same opportunities or provide the same chances. Some kids seem to face insurmountable odds. He always picked the individual to beat those odds.

Tom Burton with a brick from the 1992 Justiss-Kirby Center capital campaign.

I mentioned how Tom loved good deals. Saving money was a thrill. This obviously served him well in non-profit work. I remember how excited he was when AGAPE moved to the bigger building on Nolensville Rd. But, over the years he realized the need and the benefit AGAPE would see owning a building rather than paying rent. He led a strong campaign to raise the funds not only to purchase land and build a building, but avoid any debt associated with a building. Some of his proudest achievements he would tell you would be – No Debt for AGAPE, Substantial Endowment fund for AGAPE; The Bone Marrow Drive thru Rotary, and Grandchildren. He was great at thinking of new ideas to raise money.

Many of you remember AGAPE’s Derby Day. Think about that for a fundraising event. A fundraiser to be held at the Nashville Speedway. Of course, one of the main sponsors for the event was Purity Dairies. Dad bonded with Miles Ezell at the very beginning of his time at AGAPE. But, besides Purity, the 7-Up Bottling Company served as a sponsor. So, he decided to combine his passion for running as a part of the fundraiser and hold various fun runs. There was a mile, a 5K, and a 7K. He was so proud of that idea – no one was doing a 7K – and how appropriate with 7-Up as a sponsor. And, no one was running a foot race on the Speedway. The whole day had a great festive feel. During these years were also when Purity lovers will remember our Good Buddy Jim Varney, Ernest and those commercials. “Know What I Mean, Vern?” Of course with Dad’s humor, he loved Ernest. Guess who came to sign autographs.

He was constantly using these original ideas to further programs at AGAPE, increase donations, and grow the agency to allow for more services to be provided and more children and families to be helped.

Growing up, my parents were constantly loving us and reassuring us with their praise and affirmation. They were very involved, serving in countless volunteer roles as Room Mother in school, coaches for all sorts of teams, chaperones, PTA members. Mom was a stickler to confirm our homework was always finished. She wanted us to be well- rounded. She was musically talented. She had a beautiful voice, loved to play piano. We took piano lessons for several years, but never really enjoyed it.

Tom and Chris Burton in 2013.

Despite all of these activities, she still managed to cook dinner just about every night. Dinner was always the four of us sitting at the table together. Lots of sharing and laughs together took place at that wooden table. I remember one evening when Emily and I were being unappreciative teenagers. That night during dinner we were overly critical of the meal. Really wasn’t anything too big, just a few comments like, “The potatoes taste different, did you cook them a different way?” “Why are we having lima beans? You know we don’t like lima beans.” Mom told us that was fine, and we could just start cooking our own dinners starting the next evening. Our punishment was for each of us to plan and prepare a dinner over the next few nights. Emily and I went first. We really worked hard, the meals turned out decent. Then, it became Dad’s turn the third night. He went to the Army surplus store, and came home with some MREs. The night was more about him telling us about the meals, how these were much better than what was offered when he was in Vietnam. He compared them to various camping and backpacking meal options. I remember he actually liked the meals. Fortunately for us, mom believed we learned a lesson, forgave the punishment and resumed cooking the next night.

After dinner, we often played games together. He loved playing board games with us, but his favorite was Backgammon. He also loved to play ping pong, but was even more a fan of Foosball. Dad loved the nightly tradition of a ping pong tournament after dinner. If I were not in the mood, somehow dad would continue to plead by relentlessly saying, “I challenge you.” Until I accepted. If it were Backgammon, he would rattle the dice in the holder while he said, “I challenge you.” If he wanted to play ping pong, he walked thru the house with the two paddles, stating, “I challenge you.” I don’t know how that worked, but somehow it did. No matter what we were playing, if I won the first game, he instantly prepared for a second game saying, “Everyone knows it’s best two out of three.” If I won two games, somehow that changed to “best out of 5.” For him, it was not as much about the game as it was just a way to spend additional time with one another.

Camping was definitely one of Tom’s favorite activities. He loved backpacking. He and his buddy from the Children’s Home in Lubbock, Lynn Harms, continued to backpack together for many years even after we moved from Lubbock to Nashville. Dad never could get my mom interested in backpacking. Growing up, Emily and I made various backpacking trips. I remember a backpack he bought for mom, but I only remember one backpacking trip the 4 of us made together. There were several camping trips we made together as a family.

Anyone who camps understands that there is always an adventure involved. Things never seem to go perfectly smooth. When I was 4, we went on a tent camping trip with our family and my aunt and uncle. West Texas and New Mexico are full of cactuses. I fell into one and had those needles all over my back, legs, and arms. They laid me in the tent and worked awhile plucking those needles out. Emily still has a scar on her chin from a fall on one of her father-daughter backpacking trips when she was 6. I have a scar on a knee from a fall on a backpacking trip. That was also my dad’s first attempt at placing sutures. The first aid kit just happened to include some medical sutures, but no anesthetic!

I remember one camping trip at Devil’s Den State Park in Arkansas. We were tent camping, and that night, torrential rain and flash flooding came. Dad stayed out in the rain working his camp stove in the dark to cook our dinner. We all waited in the car. While we were eating our dinner in the car, the park ranger came and told us we had to leave, that the park was being closed due to the flash flooding in the area. Lucky for us, because inside our tent already looked like a small river there was so much water running through it. I don’t know what dad’s plan was if that ranger had not asked us to leave. I do remember he continued to laugh and make jokes through the evening, and from then on any, which was every camping trip when it rained, he said, “You remember that time in Devil’s Den?” He was never one to give up.

He was an avid runner, and he and his best friend, and running partner, Ken Neil, ran 5 miles a day. They logged in over 15,000 miles. They always had each other’s back They held each other accountable, and knew whatever the circumstance, whatever the need, they were there for each other. This loyalty Tom had was also a loyalty others recognized in him. The AGAPE family knew how loyal Tom was. I believe there are many similarities in the discipline of a distance runner, and the discipline evident in the way he lived his life. He knew life was not a sprint to a quick finish.

As I think about his passion for running, hiking, camping, backpacking, and movies I am reminded how passionate he was about people. He valued relationships with the people he knew. He was always looking for ways to connect with folks. I think he found someone he was related to or had some connection from the past on every airline flight he ever made. Emily and I remember so many times in conversation when he would interrupt to ask, “Who was that? What was the last name? Who are his or her parents?” We would usually say, “Don’t worry about it, you don’t know them,” only to be proven wrong when he finally discovered the connection and was able to tell us exactly how he knew the person, or the parents, or some other way they were connected.

He was always the servant. He was never too busy for us as kids. I cannot remember a single time when I asked him to do anything when he replied with anything other than a yes. I never heard him say, not right now. We often saw that accommodating response when he was dealing with other people too. I remember when in high school, every year students would ask to interview him about his service in Vietnam for a school project. One year in particular, I remember a student who had waited until the last minute. Dad had been very busy working on some things himself, but when the student called, he agreed to the interview right away. I asked him later knowing the student had procrastinated, why he agreed to help. He could have easily said he didn’t have time then. He answered, “Because I was asked to help.”

He was a great father to a daughter also. I was often embarrassed for him at the things he said yes to. After all, what are the favorite things for little girls to play? That list would include, dress up, painting fingernails, doing hair and make up. Emily liked to play like she was working in a salon and he was her client. He would let Emily paint his fingernails and toenails. He would want her to give him a massage. She would fix his hair. Which she could really only do one style, and we nicknamed it the Bozo Look. You may remember Bozo the clown, with his bright red hair, except he had the same pattern of baldness I inherited from my dad. So, Emily would tease his hair by brushing it upside down, so it fanned way out, almost 90 degrees from his head all the way around the sides and back.

As great as mom and dad were at so many things, they were even better as grandparents. They were excellent grandparents. Our kids have been so blessed to have 4 wonderful grandparents. Each set lived just a few miles from us, and were able to be very involved in our children’s lives. Basically, at every event for one of our children, we had all 4 grandparents. Including, the first time one was injured and had to visit the ER. Reed had a fall which resulted in a laceration above his eye. He would need stitches. On the way to the hospital, Lauren called her mom, who is a nurse. Of course, she felt the need to inform the other 3 grandparents who all stopped whatever they were doing and raced to the hospital. Tom didn’t even worry with looking for a parking place. An emergency involving one of his grandchildren justified parking his car under the portico for the ambulance entrance. He raced out of the car and into the hospital and at some point realized he didn’t have his keys. Then learned he had locked his keys in the car with the engine still running, and the car was blocking the ambulance entrance.

As I think about the career my dad had at AGAPE, all the years of service, all the children helped, so many of these character traits and life markers led to his success in his career. From an early age he knew the importance of a Christian home, a stable home, a home where parents showed their children how much they loved them. From a modest upbringing, he was taught the importance of being content. He learned to appreciate relationships with others, and the value of a community. He was taught how to serve. He understood the value of hard work, and discipline. He knew how to be loyal and faithful.

Ironically, Chandler actually met with me in the early spring of 2015 about some ideas he had to honor my parents. He was concerned because he knew my mom really would not want any recognition. He was torn on an appropriate way to honor, show appreciation, yet not cause either of them to feel uncomfortable. We never dreamed in only a few months, we would lose my mother and then 7 months later, lose my dad too. Last summer, Chandler spoke to my sister and me about honoring our parents. He had several different ideas, but the one he thought was the most appropriate, and we agreed, was not a room, monument, or building, but this fund. You understand, Tom and Chris spent their entire lives serving others. They worked tirelessly to provide for others. They loved taking care of people and helping meet the needs of people who simply could not meet basic needs on their own. What better way to pay tribute than a fund that exists to provide, to care for, and to eliminate the worry of others.

You should also know how much prayer and thought were offered over many years by my mom and dad in finding a successor for Tom. Chandler is truly an answer to prayer. Many candidates were interviewed that they and the Board alike felt just did not qualify to carry the vision for AGAPE. Chandler is the right one for the job. I have been greatly impressed with the vision Chandler has and the changes he is making to adjust to changing needs in a much different world and culture. The additional services and methods of support are constantly being updated to more effectively minister to the people in the community.

I want to leave you this morning with three challenges in your support of AGAPE. First, continue to pray for AGAPE: for the wisdom of those leading and directing, for AGAPE’s finances, for the staff, and for those needing AGAPE’s services. Second, a concern Tom had over the last several years he was director was that the supporters of AGAPE are getting older. He recognized the need to gain support of younger couples to help carry this organization the next 50 years. So, please look for some new people you could introduce to AGAPE. Third, become a foster parent. There is such a need for Christian couples to serve as foster parents in our area. We cannot rely on our government to care for these children. At the state level, foster care is a badly broken system. Prayerfully consider becoming a foster parent.

Once again, I thank you for your support of AGAPE and for making the choice and commitment to be Inaugural members of The Tom Burton Society. Our family greatly appreciates the way you have chosen to honor my mom and dad. They would be greatly honored and very humbled by this tribute.

The Tom Burton Society was created in 2016 to honor the
life and legacy of Tom Burton.

Members of The Tom Burton Society donate $2,500 or more annually to AGAPE.

To become a member today, make your gift online by clicking on the link below:

You can also mail your gift to:
The Tom Burton Society
4555 Trousdale Drive
Nashville, TN 37204

For additional information, contact Chandler Means at 615-781-3000.