Betty Burton, served a generation of single moms, dies at 84

Betty Burton served many young mothers as a public health nurse in metro Atlanta.

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Betty Burton served many young mothers as a public health nurse in metro Atlanta.

Public health nurse Betty Burton kept a laser focus on her patients, primarily young mothers and their babies, when she visited them in their homes. Whether home was a trailer, apartment or duplex, she would step around car tires and tricycles, ignore snarling dogs and drug addicts and offer clear-cut advice to the young women who needed her.

“And Betty didn’t just see a mother, she’d spot the four-year-old in the corner and the husband who spoke no English, and tell them how to get help, if there were government programs available for them,” said nurse practitioner Debbie Cowley. “She combined compassion and action, asking, ‘How can I make your life better?’ That’s what public health is all about.”

The two women worked together at DeKalb General, where Betty was in charge of the IV team, before joining the staff of the Lawrenceville Health Department. Cowley said her colleague was “very skilled, pragmatic and funny. In those days, you worked yourself to death in public health. You did what needed to be done.”

Burton later became a division director of the regional health department, focusing on single mothers and at-risk infants in Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton counties. Her older son, Athenian DeWitt Burton, said that many times he heard his mother say, “I’m on a mission to put a Norplant in the arm of every single mother in Gwinnett County. These are babies having babies.”

Betty Jean Childress Burton died in a hospice on May 21 in Panama City, Florida, where her daughter Kim and son Edward live. She was 84. Born in Altavista, Virginia, she was the daughter of late Clarence Edward “Chili” Childress and the late Maude Gibson Buffaloe. Burton had been diagnosed in February with a glioblastoma. In addition to her three children, she is survived by a cousin, Rufus “Butch” Carr, extended family members and her beloved cat Mushie.

Burton was buried in the 280-year-old Hat Creek Presbyterian Church cemetary in Brookneal, Virginia, her family’s church. She traveled to Brookneal regularly as they were growing up, said DeWitt Burton. As a child, Betty had sung duets in that church — her aunt Lucille Carey was the organist — with her lifelong friend Martha Foster Hopkins, “and Betty had a nice singing voice. Me, I could usually remember most of the words and kind of carry the alto,” Hopkins said. “I’m just glad there are no recordings of us.”

The two girls met in third grade, when Betty came to live with her aunt and uncle in Brookneal. Betty’s parents were divorced — her father had joined the U.S. Air Force and her mother didn’t think she could take care of Betty properly, so she went to live with her father’s sister and her husband, Norman Carey. Hopkins said she and Betty were always together, but there was no question that “she was the leader and I was the follower.” She was outgoing and “book smart.”

In high school, the girls waved pompons and led chants on the basketball court as cheerleaders. They went to square dances at the Brookneal community center and swam in Hat Creek and freshwater ponds. They each had boyfriends galore in high school. And when Betty enrolled in the nursing program at Lynchburg General Hospital, Martha did as well.

During the year-round, three-year program, they learned “to do everything, from giving meds and baths, to doing IVs and handling charts. The two young women finished the program in 1958. Photos show them in the nursing uniform of the day — a starched white bib over a blue dress, with a white cap, white hose and white shoes.

“We kept in touch, and were on the phone at least once a month, for 45 minutes to an hour every conversation,” Hopkins said. “And we visited in each other’s homes.”

After she retired, Burton worked with friends to rescue abandoned cats and get them sprayed or neutered. But even while she was still working, Burton was saving cats, said her colleague Debbie Cowley. Someone would have spotted a mama cat and kittens under a bridge, “and Betty would go out there on her lunch hour and find those cats and get them spayed and into a shelter.”