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Legacies Project Oral History: Eunice Burns

Wed, 01/15/2020 - 10:02am

When: 2020

Eunice L. Burns was born in 1923 and grew up on a farm in Caledonia, Minnesota. She attended La Crosse State Teachers College and became a physical education teacher. She and her husband Carl Burns had four children, and the family enjoyed camping and other outdoor activities. They were married for fifteen years before his tragic death in a sailing accident. Burns (D) represented the First Ward on the Ann Arbor City Council for six years (1962-68). She championed the Fair Housing Ordinance and the establishment of the Huron River Watershed Council. She passed away on October 20, 2016.

Eunice Burns was interviewed by students from Skyline High School in Ann Arbor in 2010 as part of the Legacies Project.

Transcript

  • [00:00:08.73] SPEAKER 1: [INAUDIBLE] that it's-- that it's time to turn off or silence your cell phones, pagers, or anything else that beeps, chimes, or otherwise makes noise. You can call for a break any time that you want. Also please remember that you can decline to answer any question, or terminate the interview at any time for any reason.
  • [00:00:52.70] EUNICE BURNS: So that's for me.
  • [00:01:02.32] SPEAKER 1: After you finished high school, where did you live?
  • [00:01:08.36] EUNICE BURNS: After I finished high school, I still lived on the farm where I grew up during the summer. But I started college right after high school, at a place called La Crosse State Teacher's College, which was right on the Mississippi. Right-- it's only about 30 miles away from home. But I took-- I went to college then. And that's-- I lived in a boarding house. Did a lot of work to get through school.
  • [00:01:41.13] SPEAKER 1: How did you come to live there?
  • [00:01:44.48] EUNICE BURNS: Well, as I said, because of college. I was-- I was able to go because I had an aunt who gave me $800 for four years, if you can imagine. You guys are not going to be able to get by so cheaply. But I got four years of college. But I did work a great deal during that time. I worked at a co-op, I waited tables, I washed dishes. So I got through four years of college.
  • [00:02:22.93] SPEAKER 1: Did you remain there or did you move around through your working adult life? And what was the reason for those moves?
  • [00:02:34.76] EUNICE BURNS: When I went to college, I was very good in chemistry. I got straight A's in five credit courses. And I thought, oh, I'll teach chemistry. But here is something that you-- hopefully, you guys don't have happen to you again. Because I was told that women did not teach chemistry, therefore I shouldn't take it. So my best class.
  • [00:03:06.78] I went to history instead. Unfortunately, I wasn't as good there and I was just a C student. But that's-- that was what they told me at that time. I've forgotten the rest of your question. So would you repeat it, please?
  • [00:03:31.12] SPEAKER 1: Did you remain there or did you move around through your working adult life? And what what was the reason for those moves?
  • [00:03:40.78] EUNICE BURNS: OK. Well, after college I was try-- it was during the Second World War, and it was near the end. It was 1944. And I was trying to figure out whether I would become a WAVE-- which was the women's auxiliary for the Navy, I would have been commissioned at [? Ensin ?] had I gone in-- or was I going to teach. And my major at school was physical education and history, which I never had to teach, fortunately.
  • [00:04:18.06] But I thought about it and thought about it, and finally decided that I would teach. And so I was offered a contract in Madison, Wisconsin to teach elementary school kids physical education. And that's what I took. I had an aunt and my mother who both had had a little bit of college and were teachers. And they were very disappointed that I hadn't gone into the WAVES.
  • [00:04:48.42] My dad, who had only gone through eighth grade, said, oh, thank goodness, because you have all this education and you ought to use it. So I ended up in Madison, Wisconsin teaching physical education to first through sixth graders.
  • [00:05:11.17] SPEAKER 1: Did you marry?
  • [00:05:13.97] EUNICE BURNS: I was, and I met my husband in Madison. He was getting his PhD in biochemistry. And we met square dancing. And were married in 1951. Unfortunately, it only lasted 14 years because he was killed in a sailboat accident. So 1965, he died.
  • [00:05:47.13] SPEAKER 1: What was it like when you were dating?
  • [00:05:51.04] EUNICE BURNS: When I was what?
  • [00:05:51.74] SPEAKER 1: Dating.
  • [00:05:54.20] EUNICE BURNS: It was wonderful. [CHUCKLES] It was-- we used to ice skate. I remember one time we went to what was called Der Rathskeller in the Wisconsin Union, which is like the Michigan Union here. And we had a date there, went dancing. And we used to-- I think we square danced once or twice since that time. But mostly it was going to movies, or just sitting in front of the fireplace.
  • [00:06:33.46] He brought a book along which I had never read before. And if you haven't read it you ought to do it, because it's very funny. It's called "The 13 Clocks" by James Thurber. And it's what I call our courting book, because he used to-- we would sit in front of the fireplace and he would read it. So that was our dating, I guess.
  • [00:07:01.67] SPEAKER 1: Can you tell me about your engagement and wedding?
  • [00:07:09.78] EUNICE BURNS: We had only been going together about four months when he proposed. And I immediately said yes, because we were very compatible. And also I was getting along, I was 27. [CHUCKLES] And I-- we went to tell my folks, who lived in Minnesota. It was about 150 miles away and we drove there.
  • [00:07:36.40] First of all, we stopped at a great aunt's, who said when we told her-- when I told her I was engaged, she said, [GASPS] no, not you, too. Because she had never married and she was about 80 something at that point. And my mother when we told her she said, [GASPS] thank God. I thought you were going to be an old maid. So that was our engagement.
  • [00:08:05.97] The wedding was held in this little town of Minnesota, in the southeastern corner, Caledonia. And it was a simple wedding, I guess you would say, with a long white dress, and a train, and three bridesmaids.
  • [00:08:24.09] And we-- do you want the honeymoon, too? Because we went to a place in Wisconsin called Fall Hall Glen. And it was-- it was a lovely spot. The bed was hung from chains from the ceiling. And there was a little waterfall outside our window.
  • [00:08:48.51] And we both were very tired, because I had been teaching up until, oh, about a week or two before the wedding. And had-- I was in Madison, which was 150 miles away. So we went to this place and just rested for three or four days.
  • [00:09:10.35] Then he went back to school and I went back to school. Because he was getting his, as I said, his PhD. And I was-- I had gone-- oh, there's so much that I keep forgetting. Because one of those-- two of those summers I had gone to New York University for summer school. And I needed an English credit. So I went to summer school that summer after we were married.
  • [00:09:44.15] So-- I have lived a long life. And I keep remembering things that I forget to tell you. But I'm sure there's going to be enough here.
  • [00:10:00.05] SPEAKER 1: Did you have children? Tell me about your children and what life was like when they were young and living in the house.
  • [00:10:11.51] EUNICE BURNS: OK, I have four children. Three-- well, there were two girls, then a boy, and then a girl. So there were four of them all together. And I'm very proud of them. They've grown up into being great citizens. While they were in the house, we had animals.
  • [00:10:32.67] We had every animal known to man, including iguanas, and rats, and mice, and gerbils, and birds. We didn't have a cat, but we had everything else. And they suppose-- I think, as I recall, they took pretty good care of them, fortunately, so I didn't have to.
  • [00:11:02.76] So we-- we used to go camping, especially when my husband was alive. And then about-- after he drowned-- we had been up north on Grand Traverse Bay when he was killed, so we didn't go back for about three years. But then we went back and just fell in love with the place again. And I still have a cottage up there.
  • [00:11:36.17] Lots more to say, but I think, maybe, I've answered the question enough for now.
  • [00:11:44.23] SPEAKER 1: Tell me-- [COUGHS] excuse me. Tell me about your working years.
  • [00:11:50.73] EUNICE BURNS: Well, as I said before, I got a job teaching physical education in Madison, Wisconsin. I taught in one single elementary school the first year. [COUGHS] In fact, the first six years.
  • [00:12:09.54] And I used to have children-- I can remember there were days-- and I keep wondering how I ever had this kind of energy-- but I had-- we had a gym and every half hour a class would come in and another class would go out. And there were something like eight or nine classes during the day.
  • [00:12:33.83] And there were days when I used to have playground duty before school, playground duty at noon, lunchroom duty at noon, and then we had intramurals after school. So you can see, I had a lot of energy in those days. And I taught for eight years. [COUGHS]
  • [00:12:56.74] And then was married in 1951, taught one more year, and then I was pregnant with my first child. So they didn't allow women pregnant going-- teaching. So I quit at that time.
  • [00:13:23.81] SPEAKER 1: What was a typical day like during the working years of your adult life.
  • [00:13:30.98] EUNICE BURNS: Well I've told you a little bit about physical education. And when I was young and energetic, and could do that. But it was-- I taught elementary school kids the basic skills, really. Like even bouncing a ball, throwing a ball, batting a ball, skipping, jumping, all kinds of just basic skills.
  • [00:14:01.07] Because I thought that's what they should know to go on to do other things. So we didn't-- physical education was not just playing. It was learning some of the skills they would need for basketball later, or volleyball, or football, or all of those things.
  • [00:14:22.22] I also used to go skating with the kids after school, because they had a skating rink. And it was loads of fun. And I just-- as I said, I had a lot of energy in those days.
  • [00:14:38.07] SPEAKER 1: What did your family enjoy doing together when your kids were still at home?
  • [00:14:47.11] EUNICE BURNS: We enjoyed playing games, card games, other games. We also would go out and maybe play softball or something. And in fact, we had a lot of children in the neighborhood. There were 38 children in the neighborhood where I lived. Which-- they all grew up and then there weren't any kids there, but at that time they were all somewhere around the same age.
  • [00:15:18.97] And they used to play ball together. And I have several broken windows in my house because of it. But [LAUGHS] which have been fixed since, of course. But they used to also have snowball fights in the neighborhood, and build a big fort. And then they'd divide up into two teams and have these great snowball fights.
  • [00:15:46.15] And we also one year made an ice skating rink in our backyard. And I've got a lot of eight millimeter movies of that and other things that we did when we were-- when the kids were all home.
  • [00:16:07.20] SPEAKER 1: What were your personal favorite things to do for fun?
  • [00:16:15.83] EUNICE BURNS: Well, I used to like ice skating in the winter. I used to like bicycling and hiking, swimming when I was up north. I wasn't a hugely good swimmer. So-- but it was fun to walk along the beach, and then maybe go into the water and get wet.
  • [00:16:40.88] The other thing that I neglected to mention before in my days-- days before I-- the days before-- or while I was teaching, I became a member of the recreational volleyball team. And if you can imagine now, if you've ever seen volleyball, and the girls and boys both, they're all about 6'6", I think. I was at 5'10" the tallest one on our team.
  • [00:17:17.57] But we won five years in a row the Wisconsin State Volleyball Championship for recreation leagues. So I've got a picture of all of us and I've got a trophy. That was-- that was fun. And, well, as I said, we liked to bike together sometimes, things like that.
  • [00:17:45.60] SPEAKER 1: Please describe the popular music of this time.
  • [00:17:49.64] EUNICE BURNS: [CHUCKLES] That's not my big forte. I suppose-- I suppose it was Benny Goodman, swing. Is that what they called it? And I guess they also-- I think, there probably-- there were-- there was jitterbugging. So whatever that music was.
  • [00:18:20.41] I was not a good dancer. I think I had too many arms and legs or something. It was mostly that sort of thing. My family, when I was growing up, used to sing together quite a bit. But it was a lot of hymns and things like that. My mother played the piano, and we'd sit around the piano and sing.
  • [00:18:48.07] But as for music, that wasn't my big thing, I guess. [CHUCKLES] So I don't remember a great deal about it.
  • [00:19:06.30] SPEAKER 1: Did the music have any particular dance associated with it?
  • [00:19:13.74] EUNICE BURNS: Well, as I said jitterbugging, I guess, which I did not do. [CHUCKLING] But I did like square dancing. That was fun.
  • [00:19:32.64] SPEAKER 1: Were there any slang terms, phrases, or words used that day-- that-- excuse me, sorry. Were there any slang terms, phrases, or words used then that aren't common-- aren't in common use today?
  • [00:19:53.37] EUNICE BURNS: (WHISPERING) Oh, boy. You know, I can't think of any. I know some that are used today that weren't used much then. It's-- in fact, I had two of the words that are used a lot today starting with f and s that I had my mouth washed out with soap. I can't use them to this day.
  • [00:20:23.49] But boy, there's a lot of the f words, when every time you get a program. And it's ridiculous. Because it doesn't add anything, I don't think, to the-- to whatever they're talking about. But as for slang words at that time, I'd have to think about that. I can't think of anything right now.
  • [00:20:50.80] SPEAKER 1: When thinking back on your working adult life, what important social or historical events were taking place at the time and how did they personally affect you and your family?
  • [00:21:12.64] EUNICE BURNS: Well-- this was after I was married, after we had moved from Madison to Ann Arbor, when my husband got a job here-- the big thing was civil rights. And I was on city council at that time. And in 1962 to 1968, I was on the council.
  • [00:21:40.77] And the big thing was working for a fair housing ordinance. You guys are a bit young to remember. But-- but the at that-- at that point in time, black families could not live anyplace they wanted to in Ann Arbor. And you think of Ann Arbor as being very liberal, and let everybody do what they want. Well, it was not.
  • [00:22:12.44] Black families could live north of Kerrytown, in that area, or over near White Street. And that was all. If they wanted to live anyplace else, they had to go to a person at the Ann Arbor Community Center who would say they could get-- they could move or they could get a loan from the bank.
  • [00:22:34.97] Well, that was my main thing when I was on city council, was working for a fair housing ordinance that would allow anyone who had the money to move any place that he or she wished. And we-- even though there were only two of us that were working for it at the beginning-- by 1965, we got the first fair housing ordinance in the state of Michigan.
  • [00:23:06.59] And that's one of my proud accomplishments to have that happen. Now you're supposed to be able to live wherever you can afford it. And it certainly has helped. So that was probably the biggest thing at that point.