When Rita Lewis received a phone call from Brian Rukes about her uncle, Edward Roy Burton, she was surprised to say the least.
She had never met Edward, but she had always seen him as an important part of her life due to the fact that he was her mother’s brother. He was a World War II man, the only African-American from El Reno to perish in the war to end all wars.
“I was shocked that he found me,” she said of Rukes, the El Reno High School teacher who spearheaded the movement to honor 44 El Reno soldiers who died while they were in the service.
Living in Denver, Colo., with her mother, Parthenia, Rita has kept close ties to El Reno. They still have family in the area, Parthenia’s cousin, Shirley Prim. But Parthenia and her daughter never imagined that El Reno would be so concerned with Edward and the other fallen.
The one who remembers Edward best is his sister.
“He was the best brother that anybody could have,” said Parthenia, a retired schoolteacher of 25 years. “He wasn’t at all selfish, and he was a very giving person.”
Edward and Parthenia were two of four siblings in the Burton family. They were raised by their mother and grandmother, and those two ladies were working multiple jobs in the 1940s in order to support the family.
The responsibility fell on Edward to protect and essentially bring up his siblings. Parthenia said Edward was especially close to her, the youngest sibling. Edward took her everywhere he went, always making sure to look out for her safety and well-being.
Parthenia has one story in particular that reminds her of the kind of person he was. She said when she was a toddler, a fire started when Edward was cooking on the stove. His pant leg was lit by the flames, but he still managed to pull Parthenia and her handicapped sister, Eunice, out of the house. A neighbor saw them in the yard and threw Edward down to put out the flame.
“He saved me and my sister,” she said. “He got us out of the house and put us in the wagon in the yard.”
At that time, the Burton family was poor. Edward eventually decided to join the military to bring in more wages and provide for them a better quality of life.
“He said he wanted to be in the military so we wouldn't have to suffer so much,” said Parthenia. She said he saved the family by entering the service.
Edward was only 16 when he joined the Navy. His mother, Dorothy J. Slaten Burton, had to sign for Edward to be in the service. Though they were happy for the extra money — Edward sent them his own military checks every month, and he sent his sisters a locket necklace — the Burton family was worried that Edward wouldn’t make it home.
“My mother would cry every night,” said Parthenia. “We were happy about his sacrifice for us, but we were also unhappy.”
The family’s fears were verified when Edward died during battle on April 16, 1945. His ship was hit by a kamikaze plane, and he spent his last moments helping to rescue people from the water. Parthenia said he was an athlete skilled in both basketball and swimming, which gave him the edge he needed to save at least two other servicemen from drowning.
In El Reno, Dunbar Park was renamed to Burton Park in his honor, and Edward’s family was given the Purple Heart for his valor. It had been kept by the family for many years before a thief stole it from their home in Colorado. But that couldn't diminish the sacrifice or the memory — Parthenia has all the memories she needs to keep Edward's honor in the light.
“He gave his life to save his family, and also two people who almost drowned.”
Parthenia’s daughter feels the same way. Even though Rita never got the chance to meet him, she too keeps his memory alive in her mind.
“I never got to meet him, but he’s still my hero,” she said.
Other members of the Burton family were also in the military, including Edward’s father, Freeman H. Burton, Edward’s brother, Harold Burton, and Harold's son.
Edward was left off the original list of names for the dedication of the El Reno Memorial Stadium, as were five others. On Oct. 4, a rededication ceremony will be held at the stadium, this time honoring the original list of 38 along with the ones who were left off the first list.
A new monument with details and pictures of 44 WWII men who died while in the service will be unveiled, and the day is expected to be an extravagant celebration of the Greatest Generation.
Parthenia and Rita will travel to El Reno for the ceremony along with Rita’s son. They said they are excited that each of the 44 will be honored by the city.
“It’s great that El Reno is honoring the 44 men, including Edward,” said Rita. “I’m glad I can bring my mom down there and pay tribute to her brother.”
“I feel that Edward was a great brother and he deserves to be a part of the memorial,” said Parthenia.
The rededication of the stadium was Brian Rukes’ idea. The discovery of a decades-old article detailing the original memorial dedication set Rukes on a path to learn all that he could about the fallen heroes.
The names on the first list along with the new ones are of all the El Reno men who served in WWII and died at some point in their military careers. They didn’t necessarily have to die in battle — some of them died after WWII was over, but they were still in the Armed Forces when they died.
Rukes searched for the original memorial plaque, but to no avail — it may have never even been installed. He wanted to make sure that the 44 were well-remembered, so he began to search out information and contact the families.
“I wanted to know if any of them had any connections to people who were still living here in El Reno or even elsewhere,” he said. “In short, I wanted to know their stories and see how they still connected to us today.”
By looking at Heroes Plaza downtown, Rukes found the names of five men who weren’t included at the original dedication, and he found one more name earlier this year.
The new names include Edward Roy Burton, Thomas Gordon Jackson, Gordon Arthur Eichor, James Rene Duffield, George William Crume, and Rukes’ own great-uncle, Merlyn Dale Rukes.