Burton Floyd Beers (1927-2016)

Burton Floyd Beers (September 13, 1927-January 30, 2016)

by H. G. Jones

Delivered at the April 2016 meeting of the HSNC at Appalachian State University

Dr. Burton Floyd Beers, retired distinguished historian, died in Greenville, North Carolina, on January 30, 2016.  He was born in Chemung, New York, on September 13, 1927, the son of the late Alice W. and Franklyn M. Beers.  His wife of sixty-two years, Pauline Cone Beers, died in 2015.  They were survived by a daughter, Martha Ann Beers Williams; a son, Burton F. Beers, Jr.; and five grandchildren.

Dr. Beers’s distinguished career belies the fact that at age fourteen he contracted polio, which left his legs severely weakened, and that he used leg braces and crutches the remainder of his life.  Colleagues and students alike marveled at his acceptance of the ordeal that he managed without complaint and with only occasional assistance.

With an undergraduate degree cum laude from Hobart College, young Burt studied history and international law at Duke University where, additionally, he met his future wife, Pauline (Polly) Cone.  His particular specialty at Duke was American-East Asian Relations.  His master’s and doctoral degrees were granted in 1952 and 1956, respectively.

Fresh out of graduate school at Duke, Burt joined the Department of History at North Carolina State College, not yet a university, where he was repeatedly recognized by his students for his remarkable intellect and engaging classroom manner.  The institution recognized Burt’s masterful teaching and faculty leadership  in several ways—for example, in 1976, by selecting him to deliver the annual Founders Day address, and in 1992 by granting him the Alexander Quarles Holladay Medal for significant contributions to the advancement of the university.  He and his former Duke schoolmate, Dr. Murray Downs, published North Carolina State University: A Pictorial History.  In 1993 Dr. Beers received the Christopher Crittenden Memorial Award for his contributions to North Carolina History.  Among his many memberships in professional organizations was our own Historical Society of North Carolina.

More universal were Dr. Beers’s professional writings.  For example, he served as editor-in-chief for two school textbooks—World History: Patterns of Civilization and Living in Our World—both still in use.  He revised a well-known textbook originally written by his major professor, Paul Clyde, and he was a member of the education advisory board of the Asia Society.

A Ford Foundation post-doctoral fellowship enabled Burt and Pauline to spend the year 1959-1960 at Harvard University, and a Fulbright Fellowship enabled them to spend the academic year 1966-1967 at the National Taiwan University.  At each of these distinguished institutions, Dr. Beers left his imprint.

For additional information about Burt’s life, read the impressive obituary, no doubt sanctioned before his final illness, that appeared in the News & Observer (Raleigh) on February 2, 2016.

These memorials are supposed to be about the deceased’s contributions to the historical profession.  In the case of Burt Beers, I cannot resist a personal reference.  Jobs for historians were extremely scarce in the mid-fifties (e.g., we sent Duke’s top-rated graduate student off to Shorter College at $3,600 a year).  Burt and I fared only a little better.  I was in Burt and Polly’s little apartment in Durham one night when the telephone rang.  After a very long conversation, Burt put down the receiver, exhaled, and joyously announced that he had just accepted a teaching position at North Carolina State College.  We cheered noisily and drank a toast with Sanka coffee.  In Raleigh, our friendship grew, we visited often, and we traveled together extensively.   Now, decades later, I—an old bachelor—am still filled with pride when Martha and Biff address me as “Uncle H.G.”