Betty Burton: ‘Understanding the struggles of others just makes you walk differently’

This Islander gives back by helping those facing food insecurity.


Updated Jan. 2

What does it mean to be a real Islander? Some folks insist you have to be born here. The thinking goes that if you didn’t grow up within the Vineyard community year-round from birth, then you’ll always be a bit of an outsider, even if you’re a well-regarded one, and on some level you will never quite “get” what it is to “really” live here.

Other folks, having met Betty Burton, know that’s a bunch of hogwash.

A lot of Vineyarders know Betty. Some people know her — or rather, know about her — because of various medical challenges her family has overcome, with the generous assistance of the Island community. Most know her because of her two jobs: She is both the adults programming coordinator for the Vineyard Haven library, and also manages the Food Bank’s Family-to-Family Holiday Food Basket Program (about which the Times wrote just a few weeks ago).

And then, oh yes, there’s that bit about how her Ph.D. in molecular genetics led to her sequencing DNA, nucleotide by nucleotide, back before the days of CRISPR or equal-opportunity employment for women scientists.

Betty was born and raised in Evansville, Ind. (“I’m a Hoosier!”), and went to Purdue University both for her undergraduate education and that Ph.D. “My 15 minutes of fame came when I was at Cold Spring Harbor National Laboratory working on single-stranded DNA phage,” she says. “I gave a talk, and Watson and Crick [who won the Nobel Prize for the ‘double helix’ concept of DNA] were in the audience. When I got up there and saw them standing by the back door, I was glad I had memorized my talk — here I was, a grad student, talking to such an elite audience!”

Another graduate student at the time, John Sundman, was at Purdue studying agricultural economics. They met at what Betty describes with relish as “a rip-roaring vegetarian Thanksgiving feast given at a gay artists’ cooperative — how much more ’70s can you get?” He was so taken with her that he began sneaking into lectures to impress her. After a couple of years, they married; 38 years later, she still calls him her best friend.
Early in their marriage, they moved to North Carolina, where Betty “passed herself off as a microbiologist” to work on a vaccine to prevent meningitis. Wanting to focus on work that was more directly related to her degree, she expressed interest in other institutions; after getting job offers from Harvard, MIT, and Tufts, she chose to work at Tufts because she liked the research they were doing at the time. Daughter Jainaba was born in 1981, and son Jacob in 1983. This is when things started to get complicated.

Jacob was born with toxoplasmosis, a common parasitic disease that is nearly asymptomatic in healthy adults, but in newborns can cause serious problems. In Jacob’s case, this meant chorioretinitis (resulting in vision in only one eye), hydrocephalus, and a seizure disorder. Betty left her job at Tufts to take care of him, then opened a children’s bookstore … just around the time Amazon took off. “So that was the end of that,” she says. “But I loved doing it — we worked all together and took care of everyone else’s kids.”
The family moved out to California for a year for John’s work in the IT field. When his company began to shut down, they decided they needed to find a place to settle that would be safe for Jacob. They had visited Martha’s Vineyard twice before, and were struck by what a strong sense of community there was here. “John said, ‘Where do you want to live?’ and I said ‘Vineyard Haven.’” So they moved here, and their third child, Grace, was born here in 1988. (Jacob eventually went to Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown for seven years, then returned here.)

John became a practical jack-of-all-trades, with occasional stints in IT off-Island. Betty worked at Eden, but left when one of her daughters became unwell. “So then I was looking for a part-time job at the [Vineyard Haven] library,” she says, “and having had a children’s bookstore, it was an easy thing to do.”

She and John had been attracted to the talks and conversations offered in the off-season by the Nathan Mayhew Seminars, which had become defunct almost as soon as they arrived. She wanted to revive something similar. In the year 2000, when the expanded library reopened, she told the director they needed to do adult programming, and a few years later found her in her current position of adult programming coordinator.

As with everything she talks about, Betty’s interest, enthusiasm, and respect for other people bubble up when she discusses them. “The very first program we did was Jim Norton talking about Afghanistan, one month after 9/11. And oh my gosh, it just exploded, there are so many people here, and if you pay attention to people and find out what they do … Like, Henry Kriegstein is an eye doctor, but he’s also a paleontologist, and in the summer he goes out and digs in the Badlands. I walked into his house, and there was a triceratops head! So of course I said, Won’t you please come and speak at the library? Or, when I was waiting for the bus, I saw a guy standing there with a jacket that said, ‘MIT Woods Hole Antarctic Project’ and I thought, We gotta get him!”

Some of the offerings this past summer included a tick panel and a program about an anthology by women of color: “We don’t have a program room yet, so we often do stuff at Katharine Cornell [Theater] — Professor Phil Weinstein does a six-week seminar, college-grade class there. I’m very proud of what we offer; I think it adds a lot to our community. When people off-Island at a party ask me what we do all winter, I say, What are you talking about? It’s a very rich winter community.”

Around the same time she started programming for the library, she also took over as president of Vineyard Committee on Hunger, and the coordinator for Family-to-Family Holiday Food Baskets program, and Serving Hands Food Distribution. (For more on the history and details of the Food Pantry, please see our piece by Abby Remer in the Dec. 13 edition.)

This past year, the Island community had a chance to reciprocate Betty’s compassion. Jacob, now 34, endured months of a sudden-onset paralysis that required surgery, and which no doctor has been able to explain.

“The community helped so much,” says Betty. “There was a big fundraiser at the PAC, people came out for it — when I say community, a lot of these people I didn’t know.” As well as a silent auction, Rosie (of Rosie’s Ritzy Revue) performed for free. “We don’t want to be paid,” Rosie told her. “That’s just what we do here.”

“There are people like that all over this Island,” says Betty, her voice humming with happy gratitude. “People would give us money who didn’t even really know us.” Jacob improved significantly — just as Betty herself needed neck surgery to address inexplicable stroke-like symptoms that “might have been related to strep antibodies migrating to the basal ganglia that control motion,” she explains with upbeat matter-of-factness. “So the past few years have been a little crazy for us. The good news is, Look how well Jacob’s doing, and thank God for insurance, and friends.”

When asked what inspired her to do so much work in service to others, Betty responds, “I think having a child with a lot of disabilities sort of knocks you back. You start walking in their shoes, you start seeing how hard it is for them, for those other families, other people in the same situation, and it just makes you walk differently. I guess social justice was always important to me, but not so much taking care of others. Then the Food Pantry opened my eyes, and other work opened my eyes. You can’t help but think about what’s going on in the lives of these people, and how they struggle.”

Updated to correct Betty Burton’s title. – Ed.


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