Thursday, February 07, 2013

Legend of Devotion Revealed

Cliff Burtz Carried a Secret Burden

Now it can be told. Cliff Burtz died in 2011. He was eighty-eight. He never married though he was considered a good catch. He had lovers, kind and thoughtful women who would surely have considered making a life with Cliff -- one with wedding vows. But Cliff's willingness to give his heart in full had been shattered by the Winecoff fire and the searing, lifelong memory of a girl, Frances Thompson, age 17.

Frances Thompson's Senior
Photo Remained on Burtz's Dresser 
For The Rest of His Life 
   Cliff was older than Frances. He'd been to war in Europe. She was a senior at Gainesville High. They were engaged to be married. He was head-over-heels in love. In Atlanta attending the Youth Assembly, she planned to shop for her trousseau. Then came the Winecoff fire. She perished before the sun rose but remained Cliff Burtz's sweetheart forever. It wasn't the first, or even the worst, emotional jolt Cliff had ever suffered. In 1936 he'd lost his mother and three sisters in the infamous F4 tornado that struck Gainesville, Georgia. Hundreds were killed. By 1946, Frances Thompson had become the most significant woman in his life. Losing her was the final blow. Cliff Burtz lost his trust in love. But his love for Frances never left him.

Cliff Burtz in Europe 1945
He visited her grave-site regularly, sometimes lengthy stays accented by tears, until his final years in life. Her high school photo, in its original embossed cardboard frame, remained on Cliff's dresser until he died. Cliff Burtz led a normal life. He acquired real estate and wealth. He had friends and a brother, but never a wife and no children. He rarely spoke of Frances as he carried his secret burden. But a few times it was revealed. Sara Jo Hill shared an office with Cliff at the B & W Gas Company in Commerce, Ga. "He was a nice fellow, well thought of,” said Hill. "Some days when it was cloudy and rainy and dreary and nobody was coming in the office that much he'd sort of get down and out and get to talking about when the storm come and took his mama and them. 
Frances Thompson, 17
"He'd get to talking about the girl he was going to marry. The way he would talk, I think that he truly loved that girl and I don't think he had that same feeling for anybody else." Cliff was left to wonder how life might have been had Francis Thompson lived. He was left with a vacancy that couldn't be filled. To let go of Frances' memory and move on in the pursuit of love and happiness represented a risk he couldn't bear to take. His heart was hopelessly guarded by the harsh results of the Gainesville tornado and the Winecoff fire. Georgia's two most tragic and devastating events of the twentieth century combined to ice a good man's heart.

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