On His 90th Birthday, Retired Casper Teacher Dana Van Burgh Has One Piece of Advice: Listen More
It was a windy day in Casper on Monday, June 20. But the wind didn't stop Casper from turning out for Dana Van Burgh's 90th Birthday Party.
The week before, the community received an invitation to come celebrate Van Burgh's 90th birthday with a scoop or two of ice cream at the Rialto Soda Fountain.
And they took that invitation seriously, as hundreds of friends, former students, former colleagues, and general well-wishers gathered at the corner of 2nd and Center Street for some ice cream and even a few stories.
Read More: Community Invited To 90th Birthday Party For Retired Casper Teacher
"Dad came up with the idea and he told me about it, and I thought, 'Wow, that's a great idea,'" said Van Burgh's Daughter, Gaby Pieroni. "I could tell he spent some porch time just thinking it through."
Van Burgh said he was trying to think of a way to celebrate his birthday with as many people as possible, and this was the idea that came to him during those nightly porch sessions.
"I really don't know how I thought of it; it just sort of snuck in," Van Burgh stated. "I just thought that sounded like fun, and that a lot of folks would come if we gave away ice cream. And I thought that'd be a lot better than just having a half a dozen people and a piece of cake."
What Mr. Van Burgh maybe didn't realize, however, was that the people weren't there for the ice cream; they were there for him.
"I know the community appreciates my father, but I'm really glad that he got a chance to see that they do," Pieroni stated. "It's really wonderful. And this is such a 'Dad' kind of thing to do. Just to have everybody come, and it doesn't have to be fancy. It just has to be warm and happy and ice cream and a street corner. And we pretty much did it."
That specific street corner had a special significance to Van Burgh. As a boy child, Van Burgh and his friends would wait for the bus at that very corner, sometimes sneaking into the shop that the Rialto Soda Fountain now occupies. Back then, it was a cigar shop. And it provided some much needed warmth on those cold Casper winter days.
While the building may have changed and the town may have grown, one thing from Casper's yesteryear still remains: the sense of community.
When asked about what it meant to him to see such a community outpouring, Van Burgh seemed aloof.
"I hadn't thought about it much," he stated. "It's embarrassing. It's a good community, and I've been here almost the whole time. I was born here."
He was born here, he taught here, he loved here.
As a teacher of earth science at Dean Morgan Junior High for 38 years, Van Burgh met a lot of people. He made a lot of friends. And many of those friends stopped by to shake his hand, to see his face, and to remind him how important he was to them.
"It's embarrassing," he reiterated. "It kind of chokes me up. I didn't set out to be a great man. I just set out to do what I needed to do."
And he did it. In spades. The community outpouring was proof of that.
"Dana came in about three weeks ago and said 'Can I speak to the owner,' and I said 'Well, I'm right here,'" remembered Rob Piotter, owner of the Rialto Soda Fountain. "He said that he wanted to throw his ninetieth birthday party here, that he had some real good memories of this place. So I took care of him the best I could. I got with his daughters and we got it all planned out, and it's turned out to be be amazing; over a couple hundred people so far."
Piotter could have said no, especially once the wind picked up and all of his supplies went flying. But he didn't. He stood out there all day, serving up ice cream scoops to all of Van Burgh's friends.
"It's an honor," he said. "I mean, Dana's been around for a long time. He's a fixture of this community and a lot of people remember him. This [experience] is the first time I've met him, but it's been an honor. It really has. To be able to help out with the community and be a part of this; it's just been an honor."
But the honor, really, was all ours.
Dana Van Burgh, for the last 90 years, has been an important part of Casper. He taught its children for 38 years and then, after he retired from the school, he continued to teach others in a variety of ways. And throughout his life, throughout all of his trials and tribulations, wins and losses, lessons and losses, he has learned one thing that he holds close to his heart each and every day. It's a lesson that guides each and every one of his decisions. It's an important lesson, and it's one he shared with us on that day, the day of his 90th birthday, on the corner of 2nd and Center Street.