On December 13, 2011 the world lost a remarkable person and I lost a long-time friend. In the days that followed her death, however, the inspiring legacy of Burnetta Burns Williams began to emerge. I believe that legacy has the power to eclipse all the great things she accomplished during her lifetime. A story written by Geoff Caulkins, a sports reporter for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, makes a compelling case for sharing her story widely. The world would be a much better place if people followed his recurring recommendation, “Be like Burnetta.”
What was so special about Burnetta? The fact that she aspired to do great things with the talents she had been given – and that she insisted that others do the same. Even when you didn’t think you could do something, if Burnetta thought you could, she pushed you until you did it. Speaking for myself, those experiences were not always pleasant: Burnetta pushed really hard when she thought you were holding back on living up to your ability. My observation is that she usually was right: you really could do it.
And that was another thing about Burnetta: it seemed she frequently did things she wasn’t “supposed” to be doing. At her funeral, one of her closest friends said, “Little black girls from the projects in Memphis weren’t supposed to earn degrees from Yale and MIT. They weren’t supposed to grow up to be the Vice President and Treasurer of a Fortune 500 company.” But that was Burnetta – following her aspirations rather than allowing others to limit them.
Because Burnetta was an intensely private person, few people knew the extent to which she devoted her time, energy, resources, and connections to helping others, particularly young women, live up to their talents. The various pieces of her life were revealed during the services and the funeral that followed her death, as family, friends, and colleagues came together to celebrate her life. The stories that people shared were like richly colored threads that, when woven together, enabled us to see the beautiful tapestry that was Burnetta’s life.
So what is Burnetta’s legacy, that which should be passed on to every person, and especially to every young person? For me, it can be summarized in three words: expectations, choices, and focus. These are the things that I believe drove Burnetta to achieve her aspirations, and to help others achieve theirs.
- : Burnetta set the bar very high for herself and for others. She constantly pushed those around her to excel, even when we didn’t want to or believe we could. If Burnetta believed you could do something, she was relentless in pushing you to do it, even when it meant going far out of your comfort zone. The lessons learned, however, were priceless, as people walked away knowing they were much better than they had suspected. But Burnetta knew – and she wanted YOU to know also.
Choices: In retrospect, I think Burnetta epitomized the lesson articulated by Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. That is, no matter how dire the circumstances in which we find ourselves, human beings ALWAYS have a choice: we get to choose how we experience any given situation. We can choose to be victims and live in a state of victimhood, or we can make healthy choices that allow us to survive and thrive. Burnetta chose to follow her aspirations, and to guide others to do the same.
Focus: Like radar locked on its target, Burnetta was relentless in pursuing her goals and the tasks in front of her. If you were in her line of sight, you were lucky – even though you often didn’t feel that way in the moment – because she would turn that focus on you. Whatever the obstacles, they didn’t stand a chance: Burnetta always found a way to get what she wanted. And in so doing, she inspired others to do the same.
One of the biggest lessons I take from Burnetta’s life is that it was at least as much about others as it was about her. Personal success and accomplishments weren’t enough for her: she had to bring others along with her. Her life is a testament to the point made in the newspaper article: while not everyone can follow Michael Jordan’s path to success, everyone is capable of following Burnetta’s.
The question is, what can YOU do to be like Burnetta? And how can you help others be like her as well?
© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.