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“The greatest thing I learned at Marygrove was an awareness of the inequities in the world and the responsibility to do something about them, “Burton said. “Social justice has completely formed my values and choices.”
Burton’s sense of social responsibility and her closeness with her five daughters culminated in a movie collaboration. Burton’s screenplay, Manna from Heaven, was produced by her daughters’ company, Five Sisters Productions, and is still playing around the country a year after its release, a remarkable achievement for an independent movie. In it, the characters learn that the world may be a difficult and complicated place, but small acts can make a great change for the better.
For Burton, simply writing stories about characters with determination, passion, compassion and hope is not enough. She also supports Habitat for Humanity by promoting them on her national tour, donating part of the proceeds of each opening night, and actually helping to build homes.
After graduating from Marygrove in 1960, Burton spent a year in Barbados as a missionary, then moved to Washington, DC to become a teacher.
Burton set a fine example of balancing commitment to work, family and civic duty, according to her daughters. She was actively involved in the women’s movement, winning the Women Helping Women award from NOW in 1995. In fact, her first novel, I’m Running Away From Home, but I’m Not Allowed to Cross the Street, depicted changes in her family’s lifestyle as she pursued her writing career.
“To this day our mother gets letters from young women inspired by that book,” said her daughters. “Our mother—a working mother before that was a real concept in popular sociology—instilled in us all a sense of what is possible for artists and for women with families.”
“Our mother pushes us regularly to take a good look at our company policies, to define them and our goals, and to not give in to something because it is the easier way to go, but to run our work based on our ideals and commitment to those ideals,” wrote her daughters in their nomination letter.
Burton’s concern extended beyond her immediate family, though. She worked with Vietnamese boat people at the Sungai Besi Refuge Center in Kuala Lumpur, and braved the streets of Buffalo as a member of the Guardian Angels, policing the streets to keep them safe at night. She was accepted into the highly competitive Ossabaw, McDowell and Yaddo artist colonies, traveled with her family all over the world, and was active in the peace movement. She and her husband of 40 years took their daughters to vigils, rallies and marches in Washington, DC.
Burton’s perseverance and dauntless spirit resulted in her novel Heartbreak Hotel being published after 28 rejections. It went on to win the Maxwell Perkins Prize and several other prizes around the country.
“Though sometimes temporarily slowed, she was never stopped by rejection, and she taught us that you must keep going,” commented her daughters.
In 1995 Burton made a bold move and was one of 30 writers, and the oldest student ever, to be accepted into the American Film Institute. She ended up winning the Mary Pickford Prize for best screenplay and received her M.F.A. in 1997. She also won the Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the equivalent of an Oscar for an unproduced screenplay), as well as the Austin Film Festival Award, one of the top prizes for screenwriting in the U. S.
“More important than her collection of honors is her composite as a person. She is the total confluence of humanity, art, scholarship, integrity, passion, energy, commitment and talent, seasoned nicely with good humor,” said Celeste M. Lawson, executive director of the Arts Council of Buffalo, New York, where Manna from Heaven was filmed. “Gabrielle Burton, the person, epitomizes what ‘distinguished’ is all about.”