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Dr. Burnett S. Rawson, friend to Antioch

Dr. Burnett S. Rawson died on May 18, 2014, surrounded by loving caretakers, friends and family who came to say goodbye over the past few weeks. Until the day before he died, he was in his own home in Essex Junction, VT.

Dr. Burnett S. Rawson was born in Underhill, VT to the late Solon Rawson and Orilla Burnett Rawson on July 11, 1913, at their farm on Cilley Hill. Willie Belle Learned, a teacher and distant relative, recognized his potential as a student and asked the family to let her help him attend the University of Vermont. During WWII he was stationed in the Far East, an experience that would change his outlook and his life. While involved in flying “the Hump” from India to China, he was deeply moved by the poverty and suffering of people who were ravaged by the horror of the war. This led him to see his own life, his community and his country in a new light—one that demanded a life-long commitment to helping others and understanding that individual efforts, even if heroic, could only take one so far. After he returned to the US and graduated from UVM Medical School (which he attended on the GI Bill) he began an internship in a New York City hospital where he met Jessie Shtob, a nurse from a Jewish immigrant family. At the time they wed, their backgrounds were viewed as vastly different. For them, their differences contributed to a rich life of intellectual inquiry, cultural discovery, social activism, and respect for individuals with diverse stories.     

For many years Dr. Rawson practiced urology in Pearl River, NY, where he challenged policies restricting hospital privileges for doctors based on race and religion. Active in the local peace movement, Dr. Rawson stood outside in the cold protesting the Iraq war well into his nineties. After Jessie died in 2004, Burnett returned to Vermont to be able to make a difference in the community in which he grew up, and where much of his extended family lives.     

Deborah I. Rawson was the Rawson’s only and much loved child. A journalist who taught English in Japan in the early ‘70s, wrote for Life Magazine and also wrote a book about Vermont’s disappearing farmland, Deborah was the light of their lives. Devastated when she died at the age of forty, they turned their efforts to making philanthropic gifts that would honor her memory and bring knowledge, beauty and pleasure to the community. They provided seed money for The Deborah I. Rawson Memorial Library in Jericho. At the library dedication on January 24, 1998, Dr. Rawson said, "… from now on, I want you all to enjoy it [the library]. I want you to use it. I want you to learn from it. I want you to unlearn from it, because there are a lot of problems out there.”   

Inspired by the positive impact the library made in the community, and in appreciation of his early benefactor, Dr. Rawson created the Willie Belle Learned Fund through the Vermont State Library. The fund supports small libraries throughout the state with grants to foster small projects. He was very involved in reviewing the grant requests which came in from all over the State, often several times per year. He got a particular kick out of his gift that allowed the Roxbury Public Library to install an indoor bathroom, and joked about it possibly creating an endowment to purchase toilet paper! In addition to gifts of money, Dr. Rawson and his wife shared progressive ideas and encouragement with the staffs of the institutions they supported. At Dr. Rawson’s 100th birthday last July, family and friends came from all over to celebrate him: his wit, his good deeds, and his commitment to doing whatever he could to make the world just a little better and a little more just.

While libraries were the focus of their philanthropy, the University of Vermont Medical School (where he funded scholarships for underprivileged students), Cornell University (Deborah’s alma mater and where the Rawson’s named a reading room in the East Asia Collection of the Kroch Library in her memory), Bank Street School of Education, The Fleming Museum, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the ACLU, Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Vermont Community Trust, VETV, and many others are the beneficiaries of the Rawson’s philanthropy through lifetime gifts and gifts that will be completed upon his death. 

Dr. Rawson is survived by several nieces and nephews in Vermont and New York. He was also predeceased by his brothers Winston, Solon and Kent Rawson and his sister Elna Pryor.

It was Dr. Rawson’s hope that those who mourn his passing will give to causes that promise to improve the world, especially to the Deborah I. Rawson Memorial Library, 8 River Road, Jericho, VT 05465; the Winnie Belle Learned Fund, Vermont Department of Libraries, 109 State St., Montpelier, VT 05609; and the Rawson Family Fund of Vermont Community Trust, 3 Court Street, Middlebury VT 05753. 

Visiting hours were held on Monday May 19, 2014 from 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. at the A W Rich Funeral Home – Essex Chapel, 57 Main St., Essex Jct., VT 05452. A graveside service with committal will be held today Tuesday May 20, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. in the family lot in Pleasant View Cemetery, Jericho. The family invites you to share your memories and condolences by visiting www.awrfh.com.