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A Man to Lean On
Leigh Montville
December 21, 1992
Former Olympic sprinter and NFL receiver Lawrence Burton found his true calling as a counselor to troubled kids at Boys Town
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December 21, 1992

A Man To Lean On

Former Olympic sprinter and NFL receiver Lawrence Burton found his true calling as a counselor to troubled kids at Boys Town

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"Of course he did. Todd weighs about 168 pounds. He's a lot bigger than you. You have to expect him to pin you. How much do you weigh?"

"I'm wrestling 112, but I weighed 108 today."

"Well, there."

Burton is not the father; then again, he is. Certainly for now, he is. In the search for Ozzie and Harriet moments in an Ozzy Osbourne time, Burton is a needed alternative. The place is Boys Town, the nonsectarian sanctuary for troubled youth in Omaha, which became black-and-white famous in 1938 when Spencer Tracy portrayed Father Flanagan successfully rehabilitating a cigarette-smoking, wisecracking Mickey Rooney in the movie Boys Town. The motto of the institution still is Flanagan's belief that there is no such thing as a bad boy, and in the middle of the wide entrance to the 1,380-acre grounds you can find the famous statue of a handicapped kid named Howard Loomis being carried by a healthy Ruben Granger above the inscription HE AIN'T HEAVY, FATHER...HE'S M' BROTHER. Burton is one of the modern-day Flanagans, working against a surge in youth violence, neglect and abuse.

For almost 13 years Burton has lived in this house on Maher Circle. He is not a priest. He has been married to his wife, Ida, for 23 years, and they have three children and two grandchildren. They raised their children in this house while helping to raise as many as 10 other children each year, everyone thrown together. Lawrence and Ida Burton are "family teachers," part of a reconstructed Boys Town approach that puts kids in need into everyday family situations. The idea is to put blown-apart young lives back together with the traditional glue of love and discipline. The recipe is heavy on love.

"A kid recently told me that he wanted to love me, but he said he didn't think he could afford it," Lawrence says. "He had an idea that each of us has only so much love inside, and to give some of it away to one person meant that there wouldn't be enough left for someone else. He was afraid to give that love away. I told him I didn't go along with that. I said I love my wife, I love my kids, I love him, I love everyone inside the house, and I love a lot of people outside. I said love is infinite. You can give as much as you want."

In his daily rounds Burton talks with all of the kids in the house. He asks one to show him his daily report card. What is this negative check mark for talking in class? Burton talks with another kid about his weight. The kid, who was too heavy, has lost 40 pounds since coming to Boys Town. A smaller kid—the youngest in the house at 12 years old—offers a joke. Burton asks first if the joke is "appropriate." The kid says it is and tells it in the involved, wordy fashion of a 12-year-old. Burton laughs at the punch line.

He is an enthusiastic man, one of those 24-hour bright lights. Married early, he is only 41 years old and looks younger. His body is tailored and athletic. He rides a bike everywhere, spinning off for 65-mile expeditions into the countryside. He runs. He lifts. There is a grace about him that, together with his energy, makes it obvious that he has done something somewhere in an athletic way, but he does not talk much about it. The kids ask, but he talks with them about the present. What about you? What are you doing now? There is the touch of mystery to him that is attached to all fathers and what they do and what they have done in the outside world.

Only in the little challenges that sometimes arrive does he reveal his past. A kid will suggest a race. A competition. A certain distance. The race will be held. Burton will be a streak, disappearing into the distance.

"A kid wants to try, all right," he says. "But I don't believe in letting someone just beat you. That is not how life is. Nobody lets you beat him. I run, and I run as fast as I can. Then I let the kid know he's running against someone who ran pass patterns in the National Football League and once tied the world record for the 60-yard dash. The world record. It's hard to beat someone who held the world record in anything."

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