October 29, 2009
Scholarly pursuits still edify SUNY Cortland retired professor
Former SUNY Cortland professor Van Burd may be 95 and a half, but he acts 40 years younger — swimming three times a week, keeping his own home, and still publishing journal articles on his scholarly passion — Victorian thinker John Ruskin. Burd published several journal articles in the last year and just saw one work translated into Japanese.
“I asked my doctor why I am living so long?” said the Cortland man. “I come from a short life line. He said, ‘You veered to the right genes. Secondly, you exercise. And third, you keep your mind busy.’ I think that’s a very good description.”
Burd retired from SUNY Cortland in 1979, where he taught in the English Department for around 26 years. Before that, he taught in the public school system. At SUNY Cortland he taught the 19th century British writers: Wordsworth, Keats, Browning, and Tennyson. His own particular passion remains John Ruskin and he’s published four books on the English social critic who lived from 1819 to 1900. His works included “The Ruskin Family Letters,” which he edited and a work about Ruskin in Venice. He also has published a number of articles on Ruskin in the last year. “The topics are too difficult,” he said. “I tend to edit his letters. I edited Ruskin’s letters and one book is about his love affairs.”
One paper was translated into Japanese. He pointed to “Ruskin and his Good Master,” a volume that he was given by a Japanese colleague in the Japanese language. “You don’t think that in Japan they would have any interest in Ruskin but they do, because he describes nature so beautifully. The Japanese are crazy for nature.”
The 19th century figure was England’s greatest art critic, Burd said, “and particularly of Turner, one of whose pictures is showing now in Syracuse. “And he was a social critic.”
“I am interested in art and social reform. I admire (Ruskin’s) ideas. One of his favorite quotes is: There is no wealth but life. We all tend to be money grubbing but at the final analysis, it’s life. Society is too much bent for making money and leaving out the poor man,” Burd said.
Burd was married to Julia and they have one child, Joyce, who lives in Indiana. She has four children. After Burd retired, he took care of his wife, “for a long time.” She died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2003, he said. It’s his wife and daughter that he is most proud of, when he looks back at both his work and retirement life.
“We did much traveling, especially in connection to Ruskin in Venice,” he said. “You never get to know enough about it. ... We went abroad about 25 times ... To work on Ruskin, you have to be in England.”
He would typically study up on some facet of the author and painter here in Cortland and then go visit where he was living to find out more.
“Like many great people, he had an unhappy love life. The girl he loves dies young. He goes to Venice and believes her spirit is leading him around. That’s the subject of one book.”
Burd is a member of the Modern Language Association and the United Presbyterian Church in Cortland. He graduated from the University of Chicago, got his master’s from Stanford University and his doctorate from the University of Michigan. He retired a distinguished professor.
Now he spends his free time in scholarly study and swims three times a week to stay healthy at SUNY Cortland’s pool. It is 75 feet long and he puts in over 30 minutes each session.
“It’s just short of a half mile,” he said of his workouts. “That helps me,” he said. “Usually I swim with two other retired professors — John Fauth and another retired English professor, Bruce Atkins.”
“There was a recent study, a report in this retirement magazine about who lives the longest. Are they walkers, runners or swimmers? It was conducted at the University of South Carolina,” he said. Swimmers by far were the people who lived the longest, the study found, Burd said.
He advises others to socialize, exercise and have intellectual interests, like reading, to stay well. And to help college students to make their way through academia. Burd is grateful to his family and the scholarships he received along the way.
“I think it’s very important for all of us to help students get through college, since so many helped me,” he said.
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