Margaret Adele Burns

Margaret Adele Burns

My aunt Margaret Adele Burns was born on September 22, 1906 in Chicago, Illinois to John Michael Burns and Eva Josephine Tillotson. Shortly after her birth John and Eva moved from their first home on the South Side of Chicago to the West Side, into a home inherited from John's parents. The rest of the Burns children were born in the new home. John's sisters Kate Burns Quinn and Grace Burns Landers already lived nearby.

Everyone in the family called Margaret "Marn." I was around ten years old before I realized that Marn's first name was actually Margaret. A very few of Marn's friends from early childhood addressed her as "Peggy", so presumably she may have used that as a nickname for a while too.

Margaret Adele Burns

Margaret Adele Burns.
A few weeks after birth.

Margaret Adele Burns

Margaret Adele Burns.
A few months old.

Even as a child Margaret was very particular about some things. For example, she insisted her middle name be pronounced correctly: "It is pronounced Ay'-dell, not uh-dell'," she used to say. She also insisted that correspondents include her middle initial. "My middle initial is an integral portion of my name," she declared.

As a child Marn liked to wear a bow in her hair. The bow appears in many early photos of Marn, such as the one below of Marn and her sister Grace Evelyn Burns.

Margaret Adele Burns and Grace Evelyn Burns

Margaret Adele Burns and Grace Evelyn Burns.
Photo taken in 1910.

Marn often sewed a name tag into her clothes. I think this was because the Burns home acted as the "central hotel" for all visiting out-of-town relatives. Even the in-town relatives often came over with their children for lunch and dinner. As a result, clothes and toys could get rather mixed up.

One day my Dad watched as Marn added a tag to a dress. He remarked, in the usual dry manner which he never lost, "I know why you sew your name into your dress. You want to make sure people know who you are if you drop dead in the street." No one recalls Marn's reply.

Marn typically put up her hair before going to bed. Upon observing this, my Dad asked, "Why don't you just take off your hair before you go to bed and put it on the dresser like momma does?" My grandmother wore a switch which she took off before going to bed. My Dad thought all women could detach their hair.

Marn took an early interest in foreign languages and geography. Those interests provided the foundation for her love of travelling later in life. She also studied piano for several years, but did not continue with her studies once she attended college. Nevertheless she never lost her love for piano music or classical music in general. As a child I spent many happy hours listening to music with Marn. My aunt Grace did continue her piano studies and played well into old age.

Margaret Adele Burns

Margaret Adele Burns.
About ten years old.

Marn attended St. Mel grammar school and Austin High School. At Austin Marn engaged in many activities including the College Club, the "Y" Club, the Senior Council, the Civic Industrial Club, the Photographic Committee, the Spanish Club, the Athletic Association, and the Astral Club (honor society), among others. Marn reported her pet peeve was being teased about her long hair, although as far as I can tell, Marn wore her hair quite short all through high school. She never did get her hair to grow very long. Perhaps this was an example of Marn's droll sense of humor.

Margaret Adele Burns and friends

Margaret Adele Burns (bottom) and high school friends.
About 1920.

Marn's excellence in her studies at Austin merited her a one-year scholarship to The University of Chicago, which she entered in 1924. For her sophomore year, Marn transferred to the more affordable University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Marn was elected to Sigma Delta Pi, the national Spanish honorary fraternity, and also Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor fraternity. Marn became fluent in Spanish, a useful skill in her many later trips to Mexico, Spain, and Latin America. Marn also studied shorthand and became quite expert in the Munson and Pittman methods. She also developed excellent organizational skills which served her in all her jobs the rest of her life.

At the University of Illinois, Marn was assigned to a dorm without any heat. After getting used to sleeping in the cold, she decided she liked it and after that, of her own choice, she slept in a bed in a cold place, until the last few years of her life. Most of the time her bed was on a back porch. She'd awake, sneezing, when the sun's ray struck her face in the morning. I share this photic sneezing trait.

In 1928 Marn was graduated from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences. The first photo above dates to Marn's college years. After graduation, Marn accepted a teaching position at Leach Shorthand College.

During the 1930s Marn completed several extension courses in education and accounting at the University of Illinois. She also took courses in Pittman shorthand at Moser College and Loyola University. Marn taught shorthand, typing, and business methods in the Chicago public schools at Lakeview high school and Jones Commercial college. She tried to teach me Pittman shorthand when I was a youngster, but I didn't pick it up very well, and I don't remember any now.

Marn and Grace provided most of the family income during the 1930s. It was thanks to Marn that my Dad was able to attend college. Neither of my grandparents had attended college, but they wanted their children to do so, and they all did.

The Burns family lived with several pet dogs over the years. Marn's favorite dog was Pepper, a lively and intelligent Boston Bull, who was her pet during the 1930s. Marn and Pepper were inseparable -- she even took him on vacation when feasible. She never found another dog to replace him.

Margaret Adele Burns and Pepper

Margaret Adele Burns.
With Pepper the dog. About 1935.


Pepper the dog, 1935.

In the 1940s Marn started working at the Chicago office of Stone and Webster, the largest engineering firm in the world for several decades. Stone and Webster built electrical powerplants, processing plants, tunnels, dams, nuclear power plants, and many other large scale works in the century of its existence. Marn retired from Stone and Webster in 1971.

Margaret Adele Burns

Margaret Adele Burns.
January 1943.

Marn spent about nine restless months in retirement. She just could not stand being idle, so she returned to full-time employment, taking an office job at Mundelein College in Chicago. At that time Mundelein was still an independent women's college -- the last women's college in Illinois -- and not a part of Loyola University as it is today.

Margaret Adele Burns

Margaret Adele Burns.
Marn in her office at Mundelein College.

Marn worked for Mundelein until 1990 when she suffered a mild stroke. "At work a few days after Easter, I had been typing like fury," Marn recounted, "when it was necessary to get up and check a name in a file cabinet a couple of feet away. I suddenly found myself sitting on the floor for no reason. In a few minutes I got up and resumed typing when it suddenly occurred to me that did not seem normal. I called my sister Grace to come with her car. We headed for the doctor's office near home. He took a look at me and sent me a few blocks away to the hospital for a suite of tests, which verified his diagnosis that it was a type of stroke called a TIA."

Marn spent several weeks in the hospital in therapy. She continued: "Of course I had to give up my job, which I liked very much, and time hangs pretty heavy on my hands." Unfortunately this initial TIA was followed over the next few years by more serious strokes. Marn did her best to recover from each one. Right up to the end she was still trying to figure out how she might essay a final visit to her beloved Mexico. She never did get back to Mexico. A final stroke led to Marn's death on October 7, 1994. She is buried with her parents and her sister Grace in Queen of Heaven cemetery in Hillside, Illinois.

Margaret Adele Burns

Margaret Adele Burns.
Taken in 1986.

Marn influenced my life right at the very start. My name, Philip, is not a family name, but Marn liked it, and convinced my parents to name me Philip.

As I think back on the forty-two years I knew Marn, several characteristics stand out. Marn was honest, sometimes brutally so. If you wanted an honest opinion about something, you asked Marn. You might not get the answer you liked, but you'd get an honest answer!

Marn was rarely critical of me personally. However, she didn't like long hair on men. My hair, while never really very long at any time in my life, was still too long for her tastes. "Get a haircut" she'd always say when she saw me. She also didn't like my habit of eating my fingernails. As a boy she tried putting supposedly bad-tasting nail polish on them as a deterrent, but evidently that didn't work, and I still eat my fingernails.

Marn was extraordinarily knowledgeable about the proper use of the English language. I could rely on her anytime I had a question about grammar, phrasing, or the way to use a word. I recall vividly how incensed she was about some of the original official English translations used in the Catholic Mass after the second Vatican Council. "Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the world" really annoyed her.

Marn was the only American whose English my mother could understand when she moved to Chicago from France after marrying my father. In the 1940s, French people who knew English tended to be familiar with British accents. The American accent was quite different to my mother's ears, but with Marn's help she learned to understand it quite well in short order.

Marn was generous. She supported my every interest as I grew up. I collected sea shells as a boy. Marn sent me beautiful sea shells from whatever part of the world she visited on her travels. She also sent me stamps from the different countries she visited. After I demonstrated an early interest in astronomy -- which I still have -- Marn bought me several books and a Spitz Jr. mini-planetarium. I used to perform mini-sky shows at family gatherings using the planetarium.

Marn and her sister Grace introduced me to classical music. I spent many happy hours listening with them to Marn's record collection, the radio, and Grace's piano playing. (I also took piano and organ lessons for several years as a boy, but I was never very good, and I rarely play anymore.) Among Marn's favorite pieces were "El Amor Brujo" by Manuel de Falla and "The Holy City" by Stephen Adams (nom de plume of Michael Maybrick).

Marn loved chocolates, especially Fannie May chocolates. I believe she knew the exact content of each and every piece of chocolate Fannie May ever produced!

Marn's favorite drink was Diet-Rite Cola. The odd juxtaposition of eating a large quantity of chocolate while drinking diet cola seemed perfectly natural to me as a child. Marn was also fond of eating plain crushed ice. I picked up that habit myself for many years.

Marn and Grace were both great cooks. After their mother passed away, they continued her tradition of providing the meal for family gatherings. Marn was a terrific baker. Her apple, cherry, and chocolate pies were fabulous. I particularly liked her chocolate marshmallow layer cake and her angel food cake. Other family members fondly recall Marn's mince and pumpkin pies.

Puffed rice balls were another of Marn's specialties. These were aggregations of puffed rice held together by a sweet syrupy "glue." I always looked forward to receiving a supply for my birthday.

While Marn loved dogs, she did not like cats at all. Whenever Marn visited our cat-filled house, the cats would make a bee-line for Marn, even in the middle of a crowd, much to Marn's consternation. I've never figured out why cats do that. Just another feline mystery.

Marn attended church regularly until she was no longer able to do so. She particularly enjoyed the music at the church she attended, Queen of All Saints. Marn also supported many charities.

Marn never learned to drive. She always took public transporation within the Chicago area, and used planes, trains, buses, ships, boats, and animals on vacation. Using public transportation, Marn often took me and my sisters on little excursions within the Chicago area. We travelled over Chicago by helicopter, and also on the Chicago River and Lake Michigan by boat. Trips of this sort provided a new vantage point on the familiar.

On her own, Marn travelled all over the world until the strokes she suffered in her 80s prevented her. She was absolutely fearless, travelling to places Westerners would not think to go, often alone except for a native guide -- into deepest Africa, up the Andes on donkey back, to the spot of a live volcanic eruption in progress (Paracutin in Mexico). Of course she also visited Europe, Latin and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Polynesia, Asia -- every continent but Antarctica. In 1952 she travelled all the way around the world by plane -- a rare feat in those days. The photo below may come from a stop in Egypt on that around the world trip, or possibly a trip to Egypt some years earlier. But Marn's very favorite place, the one she visited most often, was Mexico.

Margaret Adele Burns

Margaret Adele Burns riding a camel.
On the Giza plateau with the pyramids in the background.
The dragoman is, I believe, Sheikh Ashour Abdul Kerim El-Gabry.

Marn's postcards, photos, movies, and travelogs offered fascinating glimpses of places rarely seen by Western eyes. I was transfixed by Marn's movies of Africa and other places very different from the Chicago where I grew up. I've not travelled very much myself, but everytime I do, I think of Marn.

Back to John Michael Burns.
Back to my Burns genealogy page.
Back to my Tillotson genealogy page.
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Last modified by pib on June 29, 2013.