Harold Burleson eagerly shares war stories he heard from veterans when he was growing up in West Virginia. What makes Burleson’s recollections significant is that the stories he so vividly recounts on a November 2011 morning were told to him by veterans of the Civil War.
Burleson jokes that, at 94, he “doesn’t buy green bananas,” but clearly he’s not about to give up on life or on his passion.
Burleson, a keen observer of human nature, always has loved studying history and keeping up with current events. (He still has his original clipping of a newspaper story about Charles Lindberg’s 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic.) So, when he retired in 1982 he was delighted finally to be able to devote his time and himself to preserving the past ... for his church, for his alma mater and for posterity.
Just recently Burleson bought a computer and got an Internet connection so he can organize the stories, artifacts, genealogy, photographs and documents he’s been collecting for the better part of a century.
“I’m putting the family history on a disk,” he explained. “I’m afraid the papers will be thrown out when I’m gone.”
That family history includes 6,000 names — the Garlands, the Smiths, the Bells and, of course, the Burlesons — dating back to 1659 colonial Connecticut.
“I’m probably related to every Burleson around here. The Lord didn’t think enough of the Burlesons to make two sets of us,” he jokes.
Ask Burleson anything about Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church and he’ll have the answer. If the event happened after fall 1932, there’s a good chance the answer will come with first-hand insights. He’s been attending Munsey for 80 years (he’s been a member since March 1932) and since his retirement from North American Rayon, Burleson has been the church’s historian-in-chief.
The biographical volume “Munsey Pastors 1871-1996” is an example of Burleson’s dedication to his church.
“The church archives was largely established and headed by him for many years,” said Ned Irwin, an archivist at East Tennessee State University. Burleson hopes that Irwin, who regularly sits behind him during Sunday services at Munsey, will take on the role when he’s gone.
“Through church and his research visits to the Archives of Appalachia at ETSU, I have come to know him and to appreciate his wisdom, knowledge of local history,” Irwin said. “I have come to appreciate the depth of his knowledge of our area’s history and of the history of many of the families in this region. He has lived through much of this history personally. And what he didn’t know, he has acquired,” Irwin said.
Burleson combined his love of history and family pride for a project at Milligan College, where he studied chemistry in the early 1940s. He estimates he spent 1,000 hours organizing the papers of his third cousin David Sinclair Burleson, a Milligan graduate and longtime ETSU educator for whom Burleson Hall is named.
“Harold Burleson has been blessed with a long fruitful life and is a fascinating storyteller,” said local historian Alan Bridwell, creator of Johnson’s Depot (johnsonsdepot.com). “Upon asking each question, Harold would give a spellbinding discourse of significant detail answering not only what was asked but giving a comprehensive overview of events.”
Burleson’s stories of Depression-era Johnson City are peppered with colorful anecdotes. There was “Psycho,” the Airedale terrier who had the run of downtown and a daily routine of visiting every business; the gunfight at Fountain Square in the 1930s; and the-50-plus bootleggers who seemed to operate with impunity during Prohibition.
Speaking of bootleggers, Burleson doesn’t believe the stories about Scarface making Johnson City his hideout/playground. “I don’t think Al Capone would have taken time to do business here; he would have sent an underling.”
“His commentary on Johnson City during the Great Depression was particularly fascinating,” Bridwell said. “Harold can describe key buildings, people associated with them and stories that place you in step with a previous era. His willingness to share his near photographic recall of events from 70 to 80 years earlier was a truly memorable experience for (history writer) Bob Cox and me in our research about old Johnson City.”
Said Irwin: “In his memory resides, perhaps, the richest ‘library’ of our area’s history and genealogy.”