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Monadnock Profiles: Don Burness has traveled the world

  • Don Burness admires artwork created by his late wife, Mary-Lou, at his Rindge home. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Don Burness looks over some of the souvenirs on his Rindge home's refrigerator that he's picked up during his years of traveling. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Don Burness of Rindge. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 2/27/2019 9:01:44 PM

The first ring that Don Burness ever gave his wife Mary-Lou is a permanent fixture around his neck.

Since Mary-Lou passed away almost four years ago, after five decades of marriage, Burness has been trying to live as he always has, while still mourning the biggest part that is now missing. Some days are hard for Burness, who still lives in the Rindge house, looking out over Lake Monomonac, that he shared with Mary-Lou for all those years. Others are easier.

Mary-Lou had been stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, and Burness cared for her over the last seven-plus years of her life. “Mary-Lou was my everything, my universe,” Burness said. “We did everything is an interesting way. She taught me every thing about life and after she died, I didn’t know what to do.”

When Mary-Lou was alive and well, the two were world travelers. Look no further than Burness’s passport and you’ll see. The retired Franklin Pierce University professor has been to 88 countries and lived in 10 of them. They lived in France, where they were married in 1965. He taught in Nigeria, and spent many winters in Portugal. There were the four months in Japan after Mary-Lou died, as well as other stretches of two months in Puerto Rico and six weeks in Costa Rica. Add in Mexico, Spain, Italy and Greece and Burness has lived in more countries than most dream visiting.

“I can get by in 10 languages and I’m fluent in five,” Burness said.

And even now at the age of 77, he gets the itch to leave the confines of Rindge, where’s he’s lived since 1970 when he took a job at Franklin Pierce, and explore a new part of the world. He recently traveled to East Germany and went to Barbados this past spring. Next up is a spring trip to Ecuador or the Bahamas – he’s not quite sure.

“Every five or six months there’s something inside me that says ‘I’m alive, I’m healthy, so go do something,’” Burness said. “So I just go.”

There are two trips that stand out as unusual. He went to Prague after the Soviet Union invaded the Czech Republic. And he traveled to Cuba “when Americans couldn’t go” and posed as a Cuban poet.

The Cuban part of his identity was a lie, but the poet part was the absolute truth. Burness is a writer who has published 27 books, including many collections of poetry.

“Books take me places and places take me to books,” he said.

When he travels, Burness likes to write. Whether for publication, like his piece on the Faroe Islands for Scandinavian Review, or just for his own personal fun. He likes to immerse himself in a culture so one of the first things on the itinerary of any trip is a visit to the national art museum.

“I never know what I’m going to do the next day,” he said. “It’s just a constant nourishing of the mind and soul.”

Of his more than two dozen books, Burness has written 10 on African literature, an interest that stems from his early days at Franklin Pierce.

“They asked me to come up with an interesting and unusual course for the spring semester,” he said.

So he chose African literature. He became more and more fascinated with Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, and has given many talks about Achebe’s most famous work, “Things Fall Apart.” He was the keynote speaker at Norfolk State’s SEALLF Conference in October, marking the 60th anniversary of Achebe’s work. He’s been invited to give the same presentation to the University of Calabar in Nigeria.

And even though he is long retired, Burness still likes to think of himself as a teacher.

“I went into teaching because I wanted to make the world better,” Burness said.

Burness considers himself a citizen of the world. “The world is interesting, so while I’m alive I have to live,” he said.

He’s a consumer of books, and it’s evident by the library he has in his house and by the fact he doesn’t own a computer.

And while he still misses his late wife dearly, Burness isn’t about to stop living.

“Some people live for money, some people live for power,” he said. “We lived to know the world. She wanted life to be a great adventure.”


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