by Henry Lane Hull
For the first time in nearly 20 years this year, Christmas for our family did not begin in October. I say that inasmuch as for the past two decades our first Christmas card would arrive in mid-October. The sender was Burnie Chewning, with whom we became friends when he was living in Kilmarnock.
By contemporary verbiage Burnie was a special person. His family was an old Urbanna institution, having owned the 18th-century tavern in the heart of the town where he lived with his grandmother, Gladys Chewning. After her death, Burnie eventually moved across the Rappahannock to live in assisted living in Kilmarnock. He brought his bicycle with him and was a frequent sight pedaling up and down Main Street, with his neat crew cut hair and freshly laundered clothing.
He enjoyed going into the different stores, greeting the proprietors and their customers with his usual comments on what was happening. In Urbanna he had operated his own one-man business, Step and Fetch It, providing pedestrian delivery services to people around town.
In Kilmarnock he liked to dine at Lee’s Restaurant and in Urbanna at the Virginia Street Café. Going out to lunch was a big treat for Burnie, especially when he could tablehop to chat with the various friends he knew in the restaurants.
His favorite topic of conversation was politics and he was most at home in the company of fellow conservative Republicans. To know Burnie for as little as five minutes was to know his political viewpoints. He was thrilled when his candidates won and sad when they lost, but always polite to everyone, whether agreeing with an individual or not. In venues where he had a collateral audience, he would speak more loudly to make certain that those he did not know learned about his views.
After his years in Kilmarnock, Burnie moved back to a small apartment in Urbanna and ultimately had to give up his bike in favor of walking around town. For eight years he had suffered from cancer and ultimately needed to leave his apartment to move to a nursing home in Saluda.
Volunteering had been Burnie’s vocation. As long as his health permitted, he saw his responsibility to go to the offices of political campaigns to stuff envelopes, listen to policy discussions and be part of strategy sessions. He collected and wore political emblems to the extent that they became part of his attire and he lived for mass meetings, district gatherings and most importantly for him, the state conventions. In the latter arena, the breadth of his friendship reached far beyond the Middle Peninsula and the Northern Neck, as his gregarious personality led him to become pals with folks from all across the Commonwealth.
Each year the fall season was consumed with the forthcoming election and the onset of his famous Christmas greetings. Burnie did not write, instead having a friend pen his messages and address the envelopes, but he did manage to sign each card himself. He sent cards to virtually everyone he knew and was excited to receive their cards in return.
For the last 20 years of his life Burnie was blessed to have the kind, nurturing care of Norma Jean Sears, who served as his power-of-attorney. He continually spoke of her, always using her legal title, noting how much he appreciated the attentive manner in which she looked out for his interests.
Burnie was an ever-forgiving person. He readily understood the pressures of busy life that beset other people, and was inordinately grateful for each and every act of thoughtfulness that they extended to him. He did not ask anything of others except to be their friend and once that bond of amity was established with an individual, Burnie considered it to be a lifetime commitment. Knowing Burnie was an education for his friends, as his gentle personality set an example of kindness and goodness that lives on now that his own life among us has come to its end.
Garland Burnett “Burnie” Chewning Jr., December 6, 1943 – April 13, 2016. R.I.P.
As I began this item speaking of Burnie’s affinity with Christmas, for, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, he truly knew how to celebrate it, I close saying to all our readers, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!