The Good Neighbor
Everybody loves Sterling
The majestic live oak. Smother its base with too much mulch and it spells doom for the tree. Air-seeking roots surround its trunk in a vice-like grip, choking off nutrients. But feed it a thoughtful blend of fertilizer and topsoil and it responds with a lush, green canopy.
Shade for the generations.
On a corner lot in West University sits a modest one-story brick home built in 1932, a row of gloriously healthy live oaks at its side. The hands that planted them more than four decades ago are leafing through a well-worn spiral notebook at the kitchen table, pointing out dates. Births. Deaths. Weddings.
The calendar of his life.
“I like to keep track of things,” says Sterling Burton, 98, grandfather to five, great-grandfather to seven, who reminisces this day about family, two wives long-gone, neighbors, and, yes, those live oaks.
Sturdy. With deep roots.
Much like Sterling, say neighbors.
“Sterling is precious beyond words. He does the most amazing things in our neighborhood, always helping people out of kindness, for no other reason,” says wedding floral designer Maura Montgomery. “He’s always looking out for me. He notices things that are wrong before I ever notice.”
Like when a water line to her house recently busted. Sterling alerted her to the standing water, then crouched on all fours in the rain, in his khakis, to assess the problem. “Then he stood at his fence and supervised the repairmen to make sure it was done right,” Maura says. “Sterling taught me everything about my water system that day.”
Yep. That’s Sterling, agrees Robin Burks, who counts him as her hero. Twice he’s rescued her family from plumbing emergencies when they weren’t home, cutting off their main water valve to prevent damage.
“Our housekeeper knew just where to go. Sterling’s house,” Robin says.
Water heroics aside, there’s plenty more to love about Sterling, say Maura, Robin and fellow neighbors Allison Mercado and Dorothy Kaldis, who threw a Cinco de Mayo neighborhood bash to celebrate his May 5 birthday.
Mexican food, margaritas and Sterling’s favorite pineapple upside-down cake were a hit, but the man who bears the name of priceless silver was the real attraction.
“A real nice thing for them to do,” says Sterling, not one to seek attention. His Texas twang turns into a chuckle at the thought of “much ado” about him.
“They’re a nice bunch of people,” he says, flipping through a photograph album of neighbors, past and present. They send him pictures at Christmas.
Not surprising that the album is packed full. Sterling has been cultivating neighborhood friendships since spam was strictly a canned meat.
He comes by it naturally, this desire to help others. He grew up in the small town of Tulia, south of Amarillo, where neighbor helps neighbor. He fondly recalls tasks at his granddad’s Hereford cattle ranch. “Practically grew up there,” he says. He helped brand and vaccinate the animals and learned to hunt and fish.
After graduating high school in 1938, Sterling attended Texas Tech for a year, then Kilgore College.
World War II loomed. The always-conscientious Sterling took advantage of a government-sponsored civilian flying program offered through the campus, earning his pilot’s license. He then joined the Army Air Corps, becoming intimately acquainted with the A-26 twin-engine bomber, later designated as the B-26.
He was assigned to flight-instructor school after earning his wings and commission, then worked at Ellington Field, teaching newbie pilots the way of the sky.
But he knew little about Galveston Bay and its critters.
Enter Geraldine Rulon.
On a fishing trip to the bay with two lieutenant buddies, part of the group’s catch escaped a cardboard box in their car. One car over, Geraldine and her friend giggled at the scene, three grown men who knew nothing of wrangling a crab.
“We were dry land farmers, ignorant of such things,” Sterling chuckles. “She grabbed that crab and put it back in the box and closed the lid.”
The couple married June 8, 1944. Sterling was on standby for an overseas mission, but the war ended. Life began in West University.
He went to work for Shell’s exploration and research lab and remained with the company the duration of his career, graduating to head draftsman. Sterling and Gerry, as he called her, raised sons Rodney and Douglas in a small one-story home on Northwestern.
In 1974, they moved to Sterling’s current house, inherited from Gerry’s parents, her childhood home. The couple remodeled it. Sterling planted his live oaks.
Seasons passed. The trees grew. The neighborhood grew.
Liver failure took Gerry far too soon in August 1980. “When you lose someone it hurts, but you keep on,” Sterling says.
He has fond memories of dancing with Gerry at the occasional company picnic. Women noticed his fine footwork. They flocked to Sterling, asking him to dance.
A few years after Gerry’s death, fate delivered Wanda Lee Kerley, a fun, spirited woman who loved to cut a rug. “Her son-in-law worked with me at Shell,” Sterling recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve got a mother-in-law who loves to dance. Can I fix you up on a date?’”
They married in 1985, and he retired the next year. They danced throughout their union, joining the Silver Slipper Dance Club in River Oaks, twirling and hopping about to Big Band tunes. The Chandelier Ballroom on Beall Street was a favorite hangout.
“One of the happiest times of my life,” he says of Wanda, who died in 2002.
“Oh yes, my grandfather loves to dance,” says Carlyn Burton, a Houston patent attorney. “He’s not your typical 98 year old.”
Adjectives flow when family describes Sterling. Loyal. Generous. Kind-hearted. Practical. Organized. Non-judgmental.
The fixer of all things.
“He has a dream workshop in his garage that’s incredibly organized. Everything has its place,” says Carlyn. If something breaks at her house, she says, husband Robert likely consults with her granddad.
Sterling still drives. Passes his eye exam regularly. “He drove to my house with my dad as passenger this weekend,” says Carlyn, who lives in The Heights.
Doctors marvel at his health, she adds. He doesn’t require a hearing aid. Hears just fine. He recuperated from hiatal hernia surgery in January with no complications, much like his aortic valve replacement surgery in 2006. “I can’t tell you the number of doctors I talked to who told me how healthy he is for 98.”
An involuntary muscle spasm in his left thumb has plagued him since the 1980s, says Sterling, left-handed. “But not a real problem. I started writing with my right hand.”
Write he does. Spiral tablets fill kitchen drawers with all kinds of notations, dates and data. If anyone needs to know West University’s rain history, Sterling’s the man. “He’s recorded it forever. Has a rain gauge,” Carlyn quips. “He’s got ya covered.”
He’s definitely not a napper, says eldest son Rodney Burton, Carlyn’s dad. “Goes all day. And he’s always the good neighbor. It’s not necessarily the norm today, but it is for him.”
While some wives might compile a “honey do” list for their husbands, Rodney’s wife Sydney makes one for her father-in-law. “When Rodney and I married we lived in a 1920s house, and Sterling asked what we wanted for our anniversary present,” Sydney recalls. “I told Rodney, ‘We need your dad to come over and fix things for a week.’ And he did.”
After Wanda died, his dad pined for a dance partner, Rodney says. “Daddy and Wanda had danced every weekend there for a while. Eventually he started dating three different women to determine who was the best dancer.”
For over a year now, Eileen Hartis, two years his junior, has been his “lady friend.” Quite the pair, say family. Sterling with his Texas twang; Eileen with her proper British accent. They danced together until her failing health made it impossible.
Sterling and his silver Hyundai made regular trips to her senior living center here before she moved to be near relatives.
Family genetics are on Sterling’s side. His mother lived to 98, his dad, 92. A granddad and grandmother lived to 97 and 102, respectively. “But clean living probably has some to do with it,” he says. “Not a smoker, very little drinking. I do like a margarita once in a while.”
Neighbor Allison Mercado’s daughters Sofia, 11, and Lexi, 7, can’t move fast enough when they see their favorite neighbor. “They run over to talk to him and give him a hug,” Allison says. “Lexi was talking about family one day, and she said she loved great-grandpa Sterling and I had to break it to her that he’s not really her great-grandpa. How sweet is that?”
During 2008’s Hurricane Ike, Allison’s family left town and returned to find Sterling in their front yard with his chainsaw, tending to fallen limbs. “We adore him. Always thinking of others.”
“He really is amazing,” agrees neighbor Dorothy Kaldis, who opened her home to neighbors for Sterling’s birthday party.
She saw him crouched on his knees tending to his live oaks a few months back and popped over for a chat. “I asked him what he was putting down because I have barren areas that just look horrible,” Kaldis says. “He was kind of making his own mix. Definitely knew what he was doing.
“And you know what? I can walk around West University all day long, and no one else seems to be able to grow grass under their oak trees. Only Sterling.”
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