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Currents: in memoriam

Remembering Dexter L. Burley, Ph.D.

Scholar in Residence, Friend, Teacher

Dexter L. Burley of Newbury, N.H., Scholar in Residence in the Social Sciences and Education Department, died peacefully at home from leukemia on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 15, at age 68. A traveler, sociologist, landscape designer and life-changing teacher who was generous with his time and resources, Professor Burley taught with compassion, a global view, humor and deep expertise.

Services will be held at the convenience of the family.

Professor Burley earned a B.A. in history and anthropology from Vermont's Marlboro College in 1968. He went to Ethiopia for the first time in 1964 and returned to study Ethiopian history and languages for his junior year at Haile Selassie I University (now Addis Ababa University). Professor Burley also earned an M.A. in sociology in 1973 and a Ph.D. in sociology in 1976, both from University of New Hampshire (UNH). His postdoctoral work and academic specialty was in gerontology, the study of aging. In 2004 he graduated from The Institute of Landscape Design at The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.

His teaching career spanned nearly four decades and included students at the undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral and community levels at institutions including the medical schools at Harvard University and Dartmouth College, UNH, University of Maryland and Augusta College in Georgia.

From 1994 to 2001, Professor Burley served as the executive director of Massachusetts General Hospital's Geriatric Medicine Unit.

Professor Burley first taught at Colby-Sawyer in 2005 as an adjunct and joined the faculty in 2008 to teach courses in sociology and psychology, including Individual and Community; Cross Cultural Psychology; Sociology of the Family; Aging: Social Forces in Later Life; International Sociology; Adult Psychology and the Health Studies Capstone. At various times he also served as an academic advisor and was an advisor to campus clubs, including the Faith Club.

“Dexter is one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know, and he loved teaching more than anything else in the world,” says Associate Professor of Sociology Kathleen Farrell. “When he was told he had limited time left, he chose to teach full-time. Not only did he love to teach, but he loved to teach at Colby-Sawyer.”

Professor Burley's commitment to his students was well known, says President Thomas C. Galligan Jr. “He was a great man who was truly dedicated to his students and their education. We are lucky to have been his colleagues.”

Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculty Deborah A. Taylor enjoyed many conversations over lunch with Professor Burley, which always included continued excitement for teaching at Colby-Sawyer and tales from the classroom.

“He might share a particular class discussion that had just happened, and, in his telling of the story, I could see and hear his skill and affection in teaching our students,” says Taylor. “Dexter's enthusiasm for enriching living with experience was contagious. He was a delightful person and a dedicated teacher, mentor and colleague. He will be missed.”

Professor Burley once told Amber Cronin '11 that he fell into teaching by happenstance, but she disagrees.

“I think Dexter was meant to be a teacher, to share his experiences, intelligence, humor and even his home with his students,” says Cronin, a Media Studies major who is now a newspaper reporter in Maine. “I had many wonderful professors at Colby-Sawyer, but I was drawn to Dexter's courses. I was so enchanted by my first class with him that I made sociology my minor. His wit, charm, intelligence and genuine care for his students are tremendous losses to the Colby-Sawyer community.”

Professor Burley combined his love of teaching and landscape design by supporting the Windy Hill School in its new home financially but also with gifts of time and knowledge. He designed the outside play area and oversaw the plantings of the orchard, blueberries, flowers and landscaping, returning again and again to tend them.

The first word that comes to mind when thinking about Dexter Burley for his colleague and friend Janet Bliss, associate professor of Social Sciences and Education and director of the Windy Hill School, is extraordinary.

“Truly, he was a Renaissance Man. Dexter Burley was an exceptional thinker, scholar, architect, landscape architect, gerontologist, historian, sociologist, world traveler, connoisseur of art and ardent supporter of his fellow man,” says Bliss. “A more generous and kind individual is hard to imagine. He touched the lives of many and I, like so many others, loved this beautiful friend. He was an extraordinary listener, a wise counsel, a highly entertaining storyteller, both a delightful host and an appreciative guest, and the most humble person I have ever known.”

The friendships forged on campus continued at his home, which Professor Farrell, as well as other faculty colleagues, visited often. While Professor Farrell's dog roamed the property with Professor Burley's beloved dog, Max, the professors would meander and talk for hours about everything from family and teaching to politics and travel. Professor Burley loved the food, languages and people of Thailand, India, Brazil and Argentina, and could not name a favorite country of the many he had visited.

In an interview Cronin conducted with Professor Burley while she was a student at Colby-Sawyer, he told her, “We all know that life is a gift, but I think it is through travel that we learn how to unwrap that gift. It's something that is so easy in our comfortable life, in our stimulating life here, to be intellectually complacent, intellectually and culturally complacent. It is through travel that you realize how precious our lives are and it stimulates us to explore that, the beauty of that.”

“Gatherings at Dexter's home, a magnificent estate he designed, are legendary, not only for the astounding beauty of the remarkable setting, but for Dexter's ability to make people feel so welcomed and appreciated,” says Professor Bliss. “Although Dexter knew that he did not have long to live, he invited people to his home this semester for celebrations; many people had no idea he was ill. He never made himself the center of attention, but rather concentrated on the happenings, interests and successes of others.”

In the week before his death, Professor Burley entertained two groups of students at his home, and Professor Bliss has no doubt that it was with his characteristic charm, humor and celebration of them.

Professor Burley is survived by his daughter, Jane Schoenborn, his son, Benjamin Burley, and four grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, 301 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, Mass. 02115 or online.

Sign an online guestbook here.

~Kate Dunlop Seamans

Asst. Director of Communications