By Cecily Markland
When long-time Mesa resident Wallace L. “Wally” Burgess turns 90 in May, he will celebrate surrounded by many whose lives he touched as an Arizona educator, by ward and community members he served with over the years and by family members and friends.
Brother Burgess was born in Gallup, New Mexico, on May 21, 1925.
He was attending Arizona State College and working for the City of Mesa when he was introduced to Cora Cluff, a native of Pima, Arizona.
He says, they got acquainted on their first date together, “She said to me. ‘The man I marry has to take me to the temple.’”
“I wasn’t worthy to go to the temple at the time,” Wally continues, but what he saw in Cora on that first blind date was more than enough to make him want to change his ways.
“She was different from the girls I dated in high school. She had high morals, high standards; and she didn’t wear much lipstick. She was just a fine young lady from a small town, and we were very compatible.”
They were married in the Mesa Arizona Temple in June 1951.
Cora and Wally, of the Dana Ward, Mesa Pueblo Stake, celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in 2011. He says they still live in wedded bliss.
“And, I love her more every day,” Wally says.
Brother Burgess started working on the railroad during the summers while attending college.
He became an avid train enthusiast, and he continued to work on the railroad every summer during his career as an educator. “Railroading was kind of my second life,” he says. “I worked one month on the railroad for every three months teaching.” Working the first railroad between Winslow to Seligman, he earned the nickname “Smokey” Burgess. “It was my first time manning the fire, and I caused a blackout over Seligman that lasted five hours,” he laughs.
He loved his career as an educator as well. He worked as an educator for 37 years, 15 of those as a principal or superintendent. He was the first public school administrator on an Arizona Indian reservation, serving in Sacaton for nine years. Wally taught every grade from kindergarten through college, including four years in Fontana, Calif., three and a half years at Carson Junior High and 10 years at Poston Junior High in Mesa. While teaching in Gilbert he also served as Gilbert’s first seminary teacher.
Over the years he enjoyed working with good principals and teachers and with the students. “I was always firm, but fair,” he says.
A model student himself, Wally has three master’s degrees—in General Science, Natural Science and Administration. He is an active member of the Sons of the Utah Pioneers (SUP) and served as area vice president for the state of Arizona for nine years. He also was a member of the Gilbert Town Council for one term.
Both Wally and Cora have been active in Church service as well, and Wally gives Cora a great deal of credit for making gospel living a priority in their home.
He and Cora are the parents of seven children, six girls and a boy.
“All are married and sealed in the temple,” Wally says. Their son and six sons-in-law all served missions.
“Cora is a wonderful mother, grandma and great grandmother,” Wally says. “I love my wife very much. I love my seven children very much. I love my 26 grandchildren and almost 40 great grandchildren.”
He adds, “All seven of our children live in Mesa now. We’ve been very blessed that way.”
Brother Burgess adds, “I’m happy with my life. I’m thankful to our Heavenly Father for the life I have.”
As he looks forward to his 90th birthday, Wally says his secret to a long and happy life is fairly simple.
“Live a good, clean life, keeping with what the Lord intended us to do,” Wally says. “Follow the standards and scriptures of the Church and live them.”
Family, friends, past ward members and any interested members of the community are invited to participate in the celebration of Wally’s life on May 16, 6 to 8 p.m., in the Dana Ward building, 2334 East Pueblo Avenue in Mesa.