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Transformation is air apparent

Burdettes ensure TWU students have opportunities to see the world

With his loving wife, Jill, by his side, Dick Burdette spent his nearly 40-year career at United Airlines helping people to see the world.

This commitment has continued into retirement for the 1966 Tennessee Wesleyan University graduate. He and Jill, who also attended TWU, have invested in once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that take off from Athens, Tennessee.

Together, the Burdettes now are making a world of difference for TWU students.

Reasons to give thanks for a TWU telegram

The Burdette Global Scholarship Fund provides TWU students with limited resources the financial assistance they need to travel abroad. It officially was established in 2015, but the case could be made that the scholarship actually was in development more than 50 years before then.

Everything started in 1964 with a telegram sent from Athens, Tennessee, to Long Island, New York.

The TWU director of admissions had transmitted the message to Dick Burdette informing him he was admitted to TWU and could start classes the winter semester of 1964. This is exactly what Dick was hoping for after he had completed courses at a two-year technical school in New York and was working various blue-collar jobs.

“I was looking for something a little more fulfilling in my career, and I wanted to move away from New York,” he said. “I had applied to a few different colleges in the Carolinas and eastern Tennessee, and Tennessee Wesleyan was the first to show interest in me.”

With his bags packed and mindset to pursue a business teaching degree, Dick left Long Island and was ready for his Bulldog life to begin.

It didn’t take long for him to follow his academic adviser’s recommendation and shift his academic focus from education to accounting. Dick said he still could teach business with an accounting degree, but it also opened the doors to more professional opportunities beyond education.

He quickly joined the choir and got connected with a group of friends, which included a woman he knew as Jill Rogers. She originally was from Rogersville, Tennessee, and recently had transferred to TWU after spending a year studying at Florida Southern College.

“My sister attended Tennessee Wesleyan, and I always had enjoyed being on its campus,” Jill said. “Dick and I always felt like we belonged there.”

Friends were key to Jill’s TWU experience, and when her friend Dick Burdette was talking about not going home to New York over Thanksgiving break—“It’s too long of a drive for such a short break,” he said—she invited him to have dinner with her and her family in Rogersville.

“We weren’t dating at the time, I just didn’t want my friend to be by himself at Thanksgiving,” Jill said.

It turns out, Dick never would be alone for the November holiday from that year forward.

United in their marriage, United for his career

Dick and Jill started dating in early 1965, and on June 9, 1966, they were married shortly after Dick graduated from TWU. While Jill never finished her studies at TWU, she has spent the past 52 years exactly where she always wanted to be.

“I wanted to be with him, so I was going to go wherever his job was going to take him,” Jill said.

Dick started working for United Airlines right away and spent the first eight years working in airport operations and customer service at airports in the New York City area, and then in Norfolk, Virginia, and Reno, Nevada.

He then transferred to United Airline’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, Illinois. He spent the balance of his career in positions ranging from revenue accounting to auditing, travel agency accounting and information systems design.

Dick made a lasting impact on the industry over the final decade of his career when he worked on the concepts that helped develop the electronic ticketing system that all major airlines worldwide use today.

“I remember when our team met and someone said, ‘Let’s get rid of the paper tickets.’ I laughed out loud and said, ‘That will never happen,’” he said. “But when we all put our heads together and really started looking into it, we saw what was possible.”

For his work on electronic ticketing, Dick received the Vision Award from United’s Information Services Division in 1999.

Coming home to help others travel abroad

The Burdettes relocated to Rogersville following his retirement and have taken advantage of living within 125 miles from their alma mater.

“I think we’ve only missed coming back for Homecoming two or three times since I retired,” Dick said. “We also regularly get together with friends from Tennessee Wesleyan throughout the year.”

But one question from Dick during a Homecoming visit is all it took to build lasting relationships with current TWU students. When he learned of the TWU choir and its plans to tour and perform in European countries including Germany, Prague and Vienna, he asked, “Do you ever take any alumni on these trips?” Four months later, Dick and Jill received a phone call from TWU inviting them to accompany the choir on its 2014 European tour.

It was one of the best times of their lives.

“We had no responsibilities on that trip so we could have gone sightseeing throughout the days, but we loved to be there to watch the students rehearse and talk with them,” Jill said. “Going into the trip, we didn’t know any of the students, but they took us in and made us a part of their experiences there. We still have contact with some of them even after they graduated.”

It made perfect sense to Dick and Jill to establish Burdette Global Scholarship Fund. They have had incredible opportunities throughout their lives to travel and know how much it broadens people’s worldviews.

Among the students to receive the Burdette scholarship is Elizabeth Houk. With the scholarship, she was able to study abroad in Costa Rica and enhance her Spanish speaking skills for her minor in Spanish. It was her first time traveling outside of the United States.

Houk met Dick and Jill at the TWU scholarship luncheon earlier this year.

“Thank you for gifting me with an unforgettable adventure. It has touched my husband, my children, my family, and goes beyond just me,” Houk wrote in a follow-up letter to the Burdettes. “We are so excited to share this with our children one day and tell them about the beautiful places that are beyond our country as they grow up learning to speak, write, and read Spanish just as I did.”

Dick said he has been inspired by the mantra of one philanthropist that states, “Learn. Earn. Return.” But he said something he learned years ago in Athens, Tennessee, motivates him and Jill even more.

“In some ways, the time I spent at Tennessee Wesleyan opened my eyes to see that if you have the opportunity to help other people, you should take advantage of it,” Dick said. “We’re just providing a vehicle that will help to enrich students’ lives.”

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