STOW: Words from a dying H. Peter “Pete” Burg brought clarity for his surviving wife’s mission in life.
“When Pete was sick, he told me, ‘I don’t want to die,’ ” Eileen Burg recalled in a recent interview.
“There are things I think I can do,” Mr. Burg, the former chairman and CEO of FirstEnergy Corp., told her in a heartfelt discussion as he was fighting cancer.
“That is when I knew I was going to do something,” Eileen Burg said.
Tonight, the Burgs will receive the Akron Community Foundation’s annual Bert A. Polsky Humanitarian Award at a dinner at the Hilton Akron/Fairlawn.
Pete Burg, 57, was diagnosed with leukemia in November of 2003. He died Jan. 13, 2004. Eileen Burg said her husband, whom she met when the two were students at St. Vincent High School, understood the connectedness of all of life and all people.
“Pete understood that, even at 16, but it didn’t come together for me until his death,” she said.
Eileen Burg, a registered nurse, had been a volunteer her entire adult life. And after her husband’s death, she started the H. Peter Burg Fund through the Akron Community Foundation.
Since its inception, the Burg fund has awarded more than $364,000 in grants to such area organizations as Heart to Heart Communications, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Weathervane Community Playhouse, Boys and Girls Clubs and the Summit County chapter of the American Red Cross.
She serves on the boards of the Palliative Care Advisory Panel of Akron Children’s Hospital, OPEN M Foundation, the University of Akron Foundation and the Akron Community Foundation.
Burg said her husband left a detailed book of instructions to her concerning how to handle his affairs. At the end of the book, she said, was this sentence: “Make charitable contributions with discretion.”
Being involved with volunteering and philanthropy, she said, has aided her in dealing with the loss of her husband, whom she called the love of her life.
“I never kissed anyone but Pete,” she said.
Smiling as she thought of him, she said giving back to the community has “helped me realize that I haven’t lost anything but a physical presence.”
She mentioned a donation her community foundation fund made: $10,000 for an incubator at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Akron Children’s Hospital. Inscribed on the device is a Bible verse she also put on thank-you notes she sent out after her husband’s funeral and on his headstone at Stow Cemetery.
The verse, from 1 Peter 1:6, reads: “Be truly glad! There is wonderful joy ahead.”
Shortly after the incubator was inscribed, Burg called the neonatal unit to ask about the baby being cared for, having decided that, “I want to follow one baby.”
That was six years ago. The girl, who weighed less than 1 pound at the time, visited Burg at her Stow home this summer.
It is essential that all people give back in any way they can, Burg said, “because of how [it makes you] feel inside. Giving back totally keeps me connected to Pete. I experience Pete through other people, and that feels good.
“It is selfish. I get so much more than I give. It helps the community, and it uplifts my spirit.”
These days Burg, 68, spends most of the year in Lakewood Ranch, Fla., where she volunteers at a local facility that helps people with memory ailments. She stays in touch with the boards on which she serves via teleconferencing.
Doug Kohl, CEO and president of the Akron Area YMCA, praised the Burgs for “being such great supporters of so many organizations.” He said Mr. Burg learned to swim in a YMCA program at the pool at the former East High School.
“I believe it was experiences like that that helped shape his desire to give back to the community,” Kohl said.
David Lieberth, a former deputy mayor of Akron who will emcee the event tonight, said the Burgs “are notable recipients not just for all they have given to the community, but the breadth and depth of their involvement and philanthropy that has touched dozens of organizations.”
John T. Petures Jr., president and CEO of the Akron Community Foundation, called Eileen Burg “a woman who really embodies the mind, body and soul of Greater Akron. She is such a humble woman, and the things she does — both personally and charitably in Pete’s honor — uplift the health and spirit of those around her.”
Terry Gordon, a retired Akron cardiologist and last year’s Polsky Award recipient, will deliver tonight’s invocation. He called his friend “a beautiful person, such an old soul. She exudes this positive energy ... Everything she does, she does with such love and compassion and humility.”
Burg, the mother of three adult children and grandmother of five, said that part of the “death journey” with her husband and family a decade ago “was finding out I really had faith; I didn’t know I did.”
And with faith, she said, she knew that “everything was all right.”
She said it is an honor to receive the Polsky Award and said her husband continues to live inside her heart.
“It is a blessing,” she said. “I don’t know why I am so lucky.”
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or email@example.com.