Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Wayne “Bear” Burkhart, who died on June 19 at the age of 86. His obituary appeared in The Herald-Mail on June 25.
Wayne “Bear” Burkhart was well-known around the Hagerstown area as “The Ornament Man” for generously giving out countless numbers of his hand-crafted Christmas creations, but his life was much more than just for decoration.
The U.S. Air Force veteran had been recognized for his volunteer service to Meritus Medical Center and as one of Washington County’s Most Wonderful Citizens for his nomination in the Maryland You Are Beautiful program.
He was a world traveler who also picked up trophies recognizing his skill as a tenpin bowler who once rolled a high score of 279.
“There was nothing he wouldn’t try,” wife Doris Burkhart said.
“We had someone tell us after he passed that he was the type of person that, if you were a friend and he could figure out a way to do something for you, he would do it,” daughter Diane Pullen said.
“If I called him in the middle of the night and said, ‘Daddy I need you,’ he’d have one leg in his pants without even asking why,” she said.
More:Tori Anderson was upbeat, witty, and people loved her
More:Frank Schaller helped keep his family, friends and community on track
Burkart’s love of handcrafts of all kinds started when his mom taught him to crochet while he was bedridden with a bad case of poison ivy.
His skill with a hook and yarn continued into adulthood as he turned out crocheted doilies, afghans and tableclothes.
“He did beautiful work,” Diane said.
The origami paper craft he learned in Boy Scouts also continued into adulthood. He would fold paper into a multi-pointed star, apply wax to hold it together and sprinkle it with glitter so it would sparkle on the Christmas tree.
Burkhart designed wooden Christmas ornaments and painstakingly cut out the intricate details using a scroll saw, creating some 300 of them annually in recent years as their popularity grew.
He spread Christmas cheer by giving his hand-made creations to everyone around him including his fellow bowlers, hospital volunteers and members of the cruise group that he and Doris belonged to.
As he got older and had more medical appointments, everyone at the doctor’s office got ornaments too.
“If they couldn’t remember his name, they called him The Ornament Man,” Diane said.
And if someone mentioned that they needed something like, say, a recipe book holder for their kitchen, he would design it, present them with a model for their approval and then make it out of wood.
“It pleased him to see people using things he made,” Diane said.
Diane said she and her daughter, Brittany Pullen, plan to complete the ornaments that were in progress at the time of Burkhart’s passing and distribute them in his memory. They are already cut out and just need a final sanding and finish.
How did Burkhart live his life?
Burkhart’s attitude always had a glossy finish to it.
“His famous line if you’d ask him how he was he would always say, ‘Bright and shiny,'” Diane said.
That attitude might have been rooted his appreciation for life itself after his mother passed away at age 53 and his father died at 63.
“I guess that as a young adult, he just assumed he would not live a long life,” Diane said. “He said every day was a bonus, and that’s how he lived his life.”
The California native scored a bonus during during one particular leave from his Air Force posting at Fort Meade in Maryland, which is home to all five branches of the military.
He went home with a buddy — Doris’ cousin — who lived next door to his future wife in Somerset County, Pa.
“We talked a couple times and then I’d say maybe two months later, I went with them all to the movies and it just moved on from there,” Doris said.
She was 16, he was 20, and her mother said she had to wait until she turned 18 to get married.
“I was 18 on Friday and we got married on Sunday,” Doris said of the start of their 63 years together.
By the time they got married, Burkhart’s military service was up, and the newlyweds moved to Alameda, Calif., near San Francisco, where his family lived. There, Burkhart trained and began his career as a meat cutter for the Safeway supermarket chain.
After his parents passed, the couple moved to Somerset County to be closer to Doris’ family, where Burkhart took a job with the A&P supermarket chain.
When his hours were reduced to part time, he found full-time work again with Safeway stores in Maryland and a home in Hagerstown.
“We went out looking for houses and this is the one we found,” Doris said of their home in the Greenberry Hills neighborhood off Virginia Avenue. “We’ve been here since 1971.”
Burkhart worked at Safeway stores including locations in Hagerstown, Frederick and as far away as Baltimore, but grew tired of commuting and retired in 1997 at age 61.
Where did Burkhart get the nickname ‘Bear’?
During those commutes amid the CB radio craze of the 1970s, his handle was “Talking Bear,” which he painted on the roof of his old Ford Falcon station wagon along with a Teddy bear-like logo so the truckers could see it and give him a shout.
And he was a big guy back then, weighing in at around 250 pounds and “he just looked like a bear,” Diane said.
He was gruff, but more of a teddy than a grizzly, Doris and Diane said.
The CB craze, of course, was before cellphones, so Burkhart would call his wife on the radio when he was within range for her to start dinner.
They both got caught up in the hobby and joined a local CB club called The Hilltoppers.
Burkhart also belonged to American Legion Post 211 in Funkstown and several leagues at Southside Bowl.
He and Doris loved to travel and went on 23 cruises, visiting Alaska, Hawaii, the Panama Canal and destinations in Europe and the Caribbean.
“We went at least once a year, sometimes twice,” after he retired, Doris said.
Diane, a travel agent, began organizing trips for their cruise group that started off with a handful of couples and grew to have some 70 members.
Burkhart enjoyed handling everyone’s luggage as they boarded the bus at Diane’s house to depart.
“He loved being the helper to the cruise director,” she said with a laugh.
During those tours he established a cocktail hour before dinner where fellow cruisers were invited to have a drink with him and share their day.
He kept busy in retirement, spending three to four hours a day in his woodworking shop.
He spent many hours volunteering with the transport department at Washington County Hospital, which became Meritus Medical Center, wheeling patients from room to room.
In the winter 2012 edition of a hospital auxiliary publication, Burkhart was quoted as saying that he chose to be assigned to the imaging department because it was the busiest.
“That’s where most of the work is,” he is quoted as saying. “I work Monday and Friday because it’s the busiest two days.
“I want to keep busy. I didn’t sign up to sit.”
He got a chuckle when patients cautioned him to slow down, warning that he could end up like them when he got to be their age.
“And then they would say how old they were and he was older than them,” Diane said. “That would tickle him.”
He kept at it until around 2013, when a bad knee made it harder for him to get around.
Ahead of his knee-replacement surgery in 2019 he walked a mile a day — in pain — to be in better condition for the procedure.
Afterward, he got up to five miles a day and kept at it until about 18 months ago, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer despite having quit smoking more than 50 years ago.
There was one final bonus waiting for Burkhart and his family at the end of his life.
New medications returned him to lucidity just before he passed.
“And for about a week we got him back, which was such a blessing,” Diane said. “We were able to talk to him and he knew what was going on and he had some pretty frank conversations with everybody.
“So that was a real bonus.”