HASTINGS, Minn. -- Burton and Muriel Gavin are a happy couple. They’ve been married 60 years, raised two sons, worked successful careers, and found joy in sharing activities in their retirement.
But life wasn’t always easy for either of them.
When Burton was 11 years old, his mother died. His father didn’t take it well and started drinking. As second-youngest among seven siblings, it was a difficult time for Burton.
“The family just split up,” Burton said. “I was the one that was passed around.”
He lived with older siblings, and at one time, moved back with his father, but said he never felt a sense of family.
When Muriel was 7, her family lived in a 100-year-old house in Minneapolis. It was hard to keep it warm, and one day, the gas furnace exploded. Muriel was severely burned and was taken to the University of Minnesota for treatment.
“I was the first one to survive an 85% burn,” she said. “I was kind of proud of that for awhile.”
Skin grafting in 1948 was a new practice. She said it was especially challenging for the doctors because she was a young child and so much of her body had been burned that all the grafts had to come from her back. Much of her treatment was experimental, including one graft which covered the inside of her left arm from below the elbow, up her arm, and down to her ribs.
“This was the first graft they ever tried that went through two joints," she said.
When Burton and Muriel met, it was a quick friendship. They found they could talk easily.
“We would sit and look at the stars,” Burton said. “It wasn’t romance. It was talk. One day she said she had never been on a date, so I said I would take her on a date. We started going together, and by that time, we had become very close friends and talked about everything.”
Someone told Burton he shouldn’t get involved with Muriel because she had so many scars. He didn’t listen.
“Others who were around her when she had the accident saw the scars. I saw her,” Burton explained. “The scars were nothing. It was her. I was interested in her, not her scars.”
Their ability to talk with each other has continued throughout their marriage. In fact, Muriel credits their talking as part of the reason the relationship has lasted so long.
She said the two keys to their marital success were that “We lived this long. You’ve got to do that first,” she said with a chuckle. “Then talking to each other seems to be very helpful.”
The couple were both 19 when they married in Minneapolis. Burton was working as a tool-and-die specialist. He had a talent for working with tools and figuring out complicated problems. He loved the challenge.
“When I would get one of those really difficult jobs, I would get my cup of coffee and sit down, relax, and get in the right frame of mind,” Burton said. “Sometimes people said a job was going to take forever, but that wasn’t the case. It was just getting in the right state of mind for it.”
Muriel’s accident had cost her many painful medical treatments, but it also led to her career in working with electron microscopes in a research lab.
“They were doing experiments on me, and I could see where some of them worked and some of them did not,” she said. “We wanted to know why, so when I got a chance to go to work at the University, I wanted to be in research.”
Eventually, Burton was offered a job in Atlanta with Republic Airlines. They lived in Atlanta for six years before returning to Minnesota, where they bought a home outside of Hastings. Muriel was able to return to the University of Minnesota where she had had her burn treatments to continue her electron microscope work with inner ear research. She worked there until 2002 when she developed pain in her neck from bending over the microscope and she retired. Burton worked another year before retiring in 2003.
Burton’s love of working with tools extended into his hobby of woodworking. He designed and built wooden models of pickups, tractors, and road construction equipment. He used different types of wood for each part of the vehicle and included some of the smallest details like gear shift levers and cup holders.
Some of the early trucks and toys he built were gifts for his sons. He said he didn’t want them to grow up thinking Christmas was something purchased with a credit card or cash. He also remembered growing up and not getting anything for Christmas.
“Everybody went back to school bragging about the gifts they got, and I didn’t have anything to brag about,” he said. “I decided that I didn’t want my kids to think Christmas was a time that you buy something off a shelf. Christmas is a time when you give of yourself.”
He said there are many ways people can give of themselves. His talent happened to be designing and building things, so he made many toys for his own kids and then made toys that he gave to others in the community, including Toys for Tots. He gives away some of the smaller toys he builds, and will keep the bigger projects in the family. He doesn’t sell any of them.
For the Burtons, the toys are a joint project. Burton designs and builds them, and Muriel applies the varnish and glue so they are protected if they are left out in bad weather. She also has made some of the tiny parts such as hood ornaments under her microscope.
Muriel has a sewing room filled with projects, and she loves playing the fiddle. She makes jewelry, and said she has “enough jewelry making things to last three or four lifetimes.”
She has gone skydiving twice and hopes to go again when she turns 80 this year.
The couple celebrated their 60th anniversary Aug. 24 at the Smokin’ Oak in Red Wing. Muriel made the dress she made that night and Burton wore a tailor-made suit with a tag inside that read “Custom made for The Toymaker.”
After six decades of marriage, Burton said he remembers when he realized one important thing about Muriel.
“When she was pregnant with our first son, I realized that she was bringing something into my life that had been missing for several years. She was bringing in a family,” he said. “She was bringing something to my life that wasn’t there. It was something important. We still talk about everything under the sun.”