WEDNESDAY APRIL 2, 2008 :: Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 2:06 AM MDT

Casper resident served in two wars, survived close calls

By JOSHUA WOLFSON
Star-Tribune staff writer

Fighting with the Marines in two wars. Helping develop Hogadon ski area. Scuba diving in exotic locations. Riding the Wyoming prairie on horseback.

Most men would be happy with any of those lives. Don Burgess lived all of them.

"I hope I can live up to be half the man he was," said his friend Mac McCants.

Burgess, a lifelong Casper resident, died March 16 at the age of 84. Those who knew him recall an extraordinary life lived by a man who earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart while serving his country, survived both a plane crash and a fall into an icy lake, and took up scuba diving while in his 60s.

"He was magnetic because he was involved in so many things," said his stepson Lynn Frost.

His friends and family speak of a man of honor, the kind of person who'd do anything for a person, as long as he wasn't lied to.

"He was a man's man, and he was a gentleman," Lowe said.

Unusual arrival

Except for his time in the service, Burgess lived his entire life in Casper. But he came to the city quite by accident.

His parents, Sydney and Francis Burgess, were moving from Montana to Denver when a rail bridge collapse forced them to come into Casper.

"Wyoming's fortune is we ended up with Don here," said John Lowe, his friend and neighbor.

Central Wyoming appealed to a man who loved the Western life, whether it was riding his horse, skiing and hunting.

"This was his heart," said his wife, Naomi. "He loved it here."

Burgess graduated from Natrona County High School in 1942 -- the same year he joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He served two tours in the South Pacific and China during World War II and returned to active duty in 1951 during the Korean War. He experienced combat in both conflicts.

The Marines were a perfect match for Burgess, who friends say was a warrior at heart.

"Being a Marine was part of his identity and his DNA," Lowe said.

Burgess, who had four children, served 40 years before retiring from the Marine Corps Reserves as a lieutenant colonel.

The military experience never left him. While on vacation at the start of the Gulf War, Naomi could hardly pull him away from the news reports to go scuba diving.

"If he could have, he would have been right over in Desert Storm, fighting," she said.

Civilian life

After serving in two wars, Burgess made his living in the insurance business. But he didn't slow down for civilian life.

He was instrumental in the planning and development of Hogadon ski area on Casper Mountain. Skiing was a lifelong passion for Burgess and he even took to the slopes via helicopter.

Burgess was as comfortable in the saddle as he was sliding down the mountain. He trained and raised horses -- he and Naomi had between 15 and 20 at times -- and as a teenager, rode 450 miles with his twin brother from Montana to Casper.

"He was a horseman to the nth degree," said his friend and diving buddy Jim DeRop.

Later in life, for recreation he'd help out local ranchers with tasks like branding cattle.

"He just had so dang much energy, " Naomi said. "He could go day and night."

His love of Western life even shined through in his military career. In Korea, his platoon went by the name Cowboy 3. He also served on the board for the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo.

Burgess' love of horses even led to a livelihood for one of his friends.

McCants remembers buying some mares from Burgess, who then taught him how to shoe the animals. The lesson paid off, as McCants has made his living shoeing horses for 32 years.

"It made Don so proud I had done so well," he said. "He stood behind me in a lot of ways."

About 20 years ago, Burgess took up scuba diving, and through that hobby, met Naomi. Although he was already in his 60s, he pursued the sport with passion, whether it was wreck diving in the South Pacific or just exploring the murky and cold waters of Alcova.

"That was something he loved very much and it was something we did as much as we could," she said.

Close calls

He had one of his many close calls while scuba diving. In Belize, his dive boat left while he and a few others were still in the water. They managed to stand on a reef for a couple hours until they were picked up.

In wasn't the only time Burgess managed to extract himself from a sticky situation. While ice fishing once, he got caught in a squall and ended up in the water. Luckily, another man threw him a rope and pulled him out.

Another time, Burgess decided to go riding with McCants soon after undergoing bypass surgery. He got thrown off his horse and McCants feared the worse for his friend. Burgess just shrugged it off.

"Give me a little bit," he told McCants. "I'll get on my horse and we'll go deer hunting."

"He was a tough son-of-a gun," McCants recalled.

Along with that toughness was an quite strength and inner security, said Susan Thomas, who along with her late husband, U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas, was friends with Burgess. She said the two men shared similar traits, which might have come from their common background in the Marines.

While Burgess had many adventures in his life, what sticks out most among those who knew him was his presence and strength of personality. He was a person in command of himself and everything around him, his friends say. He made you feel like the wealthiest person alive, just by knowing him.

"He was a person I felt real safe around," Frost said. "He had a bulletproof aura around him. Nobody was going to mess with you."

Reach Joshua Wolfson at (307) 266-0582 or at josh.wolfson@trib.com.

Ellie