Beloved Fisher House employee to retire

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
When Mary Burley retires from Keesler's Fisher House on March 29, she'll close the door on 45 years of caring and hospitality to military members, veterans and their families.

After 36 years at base lodging facilities and nine years as "lady of the house" at Fisher House, the 72-year-old housekeeper is hanging up her dust cloth and stowing her broom. But it's her smiles, songs, prayers, hugs and encouragement that will be missed the most by Fisher House's guests.

Keesler's Fisher House is one of 56 "comfort homes" across the country that provides a home away from home for families of seriously-ill patients receiving medical care at Keesler Medical Center or the Biloxi Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Guests must be outpatients receiving treatment at those medical centers or a member of the "support team" of a hospitalized patient.

"Miss Mary is the heart of Fisher House," said director Larry Vetter. "She is truly the one who makes this house a home. Replacing a housekeeper is one thing, but we are really going to miss her kind heart, her generous spirit and her hopeful attitude."

"Oh, how I'll miss this place," remarked Burley, who was honored Monday with a shrimp boil and farewell gifts from the staff and residents. She also received a certificate of appreciation from the Fisher House Foundation and a 81st Training Wing coin and letter of thanks from Brig. Gen. Brad Spacy, commander.

"It's tremendous," the general commented. "She has 45 years of service taking care of people. She will definitely be missed."

"If I have a gift for taking care of people, our Lord gets all the praise and glory -- that's the way he made me," she declared. "He directs my path."

The oldest of 15 children, Burley raised her six youngest siblings when her mother died. Although she didn't have children of her own, that experience molded her maternal instincts and prepared her for her role as a caregiver for Fisher House guests.

"Keesler has been good to me," she pointed out. "I've gotten great customer service training over the years. We're trained to treat others the way we want to be treated. Customers don't revolve around us -- we revolve around the customers. And there's nobody better to work with than the military."

A self-described "people lover," Ms. Mary explained that the sacrifices America's military members have made for the country are a source of inspiration to her.

"They served our country and they don't complain," she pointed out. "They uplift and motivate me every day."

Annette Coxwell said Burley put her at ease with a hug on their first day at Fisher House. Her husband, Henry, has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments since Jan. 14. Staying at Fisher House has saved the Coxwells a drive back and forth from Alabama to Keesler Medical Center every day.

"After Miss Mary welcomed us, I knew then that we were going to be OK," Coxwell remarked. "She made the stress melt away. She does everything here but the cooking."

"Mary truly makes this place feel like home with her love and support," said Pat Nickerson of Holt, Fla. She and her husband, Army veteran Robert Nickerson, have been at Fisher House for eight weeks while he gets radiation treatments.

After Hurricane Katrina struck Keesler in 2005, Burley was one of the Team Keesler members who returned to work just days after the storm, even though she was displaced from her home.

"Everyone was hurting, and I knew I was needed here," Ms. Burley recalled.
Five years ago, Burley was featured on ABC Good Morning America's "Giving Back" series with Robin Roberts after former guest Anthony Pitts submitted a letter about her giving nature and ebullient personality.

"I don't care if she's worn out and sometimes I see it in her eyes," Pitts wrote. "This house lightens up when Miss Mary walks in. She is a jewel that God has allowed me to get to know. She's a very humble person and wouldn't ask for anything for herself."

Burley said she looks forward to relaxing at her Gulfport home, traveling a little and going to Mass on weekdays at St. Therese Catholic Church, but she doesn't plan to be idle.

"I'll probably look for a part-time job as a sitter staying with sick people," she said. "I want to stay busy, and it's something I know I can do."