Mary's Garden Grows
By Jennifer Hospodor
Mary Burkett has nurtured many things in her 100 years, including an estate that will help Mississippi’s most vulnerable children.
Mary Burkett and her dog Muffin, who she rescued from the local animal shelter.
Centenarian Mary Burkett has a passion for daylilies.
It began back in the 1950s when the only ones you could find were yellow or orange and over the past 60 years she has cultivated nearly 500 varieties in as many colors.
She has one of those gardens that people drive long distances to see and counts gardening as her favorite hobby.
Her other hobby – real estate – has grown a garden of a different variety, one that will help thousands of sick and injured children at Batson Children’s Hospital.
Burkett is leaving the bulk of her estate, sprouted from real estate investments, to the children’s hospital. The Hattiesburg resident has never stepped foot in Batson and with no children of her own and no relatives who’ve been treated there, she has no personal story of triumph or tragedy that framed her choice to include Batson in her will. Her reasons for doing so were far more simple. She loves children.
“I feel like somebody has to take care of them because they cannot take care of themselves,” said Burkett. “I want them to get the best of care.”
Although she’s hesitant to admit it, caregiving is another of Burkett’s hobbies.
“Ms. Burkett is a truly beautiful person, and it is clear her life has been dedicated to bringing beauty, joy, and most of all hope to others,” said Dr. Rick Barr, Suzan B. Thames Professor and Chair of Pediatrics. “With this gift, she is now committed to bringing hope to children.”
Burkett gives Dr. Rick Barr, Suzan B. Thames Professor and Chair of Pediatrics, a tour of her daylily garden during one of his visits.
The eldest of three daughters, Burkett has spent the better part of her century on this earth looking after others – aunts, neighbors, handymen and of course, Muffin, her rescue dog.
And she didn’t just tend to their emotional needs; she very often was in the position to help them financially thanks to a wise real estate investment she made more than a half-century ago.
A child of the Great Depression, Burkett subscribes to a simple lifestyle, preferring to save rather than spend. Real estate was the one exception.
“I’m not usually adventurous, but in real estate I was.”
She giggles when she talks about her 1948 purchase of 20 acres west of Hattiesburg, recalling that she had no idea it would end up being such a worthwhile endeavor.
That property, which she spent every last cent of her savings on, ended up being zoned for commercial use and she held onto it long enough for the value to skyrocket.
When she finally sold it, she used the profits to buy municipal bonds that are now being paid off early.
Mary Burkett, standing right, and her two sisters, Margaret, seated, and Ava, grew up in the Great Depression, which she admits left a lasting impression on her.
She continued to invest in real estate over the next 50 years, but still enjoys gardening above all else – fitting for a woman almost born at the 1914 Rose Parade in Pasadena, California.
Burkett’s parents, both second-generation Mississippians, moved briefly to Los Angeles so her dad could learn the sheet metal business. Just before their return to Mississippi, Burkett’s mother, desperate to see the parade, seriously considered making the trip to Pasadena. Luckily, she decided it was too risky and Burkett was born the next day on January 2.
After her parents returned to Hattiesburg, Burkett never left the state again unless it was on vacation. She received her degree from the University of Southern Mississippi in medical laboratory sciences and spent 40 years as a registered medical technologist.
She retired in 1962 from Gulfport Memorial Hospital. She loved living on the coast. Something about the water and the “easy-going” people always appealed to her, but in 1976 she returned for good to Hattiesburg, where she eventually established scholarship funds at her alma mater, University of Southern Mississippi.
Thirty years later, she encountered Batson Children’s Hospital for the first time through a letter sent to donors from the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals program at Batson. Even though she’s never visited the hospital, Burkett learned all she needed from those letters. Each time she would receive a letter with information about the hospital, Burkett would reply with a small donation.
During her tenure at Gulfport Memorial Hospital, Mary Burkett enjoyed research more than clinical work because it changed every day.
This went on for nearly seven years until one day, Burkett enclosed a handwritten letter to Barr, who co-signs the CMNH letters with hospital chief executive officer, Guy Giesecke.
“I almost fell out of my chair when I read Mary’s letter, especially the last paragraph,” Barr said. “It was similar to other letters I receive in that it outlined her personal connection to child health issues and her dedication to research in her career, but that last paragraph, that was really special.”
That paragraph explained that Batson would be included in her will and that the hospital would receive a significant portion of her estate.
The declaration, worthy of some fanfare, was done in a most matter-of-fact way. Burkett simply sees it as her duty.
“I try to follow a Christian faith and I feel like if you’re in a position to help somebody and if it doesn’t hurt you, then do it.”