MERIDEN — Gary Burt was a fixture at the Meriden Boys & Girls Club, and a big-hearted father figure and mentor to countless youth who walked through the club’s doors during a tenure that lasted more than 40 years.
Burt, who numerous friends and colleagues fondly referred to as “Tex,” would lead the Boys & Girls Club as its executive director for 30 of those years. During that time, he oversaw the physical expansion of the club’s Lincoln Street facility and Camp Cuno. The club’s programs also expanded during Burt’s tenure. In 2000, that programming became co-educational, expanded to include both boys and girls, after more than a century as the Boys Club.
Burt died on Saturday, Jan. 28, after having battled Parkinson’s disease, according to his family. He was 79.
Some of the youth Burt mentored later became leaders of the club, ensuring his legacy will live on. Those who knew Burt estimated he positively influenced thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Meriden youth during his decades with the club.
For example, one of those residents was Larue Graham, who is now the club’s executive director. Graham first met Burt in 1977. Graham was 10 years old at the time. His family that year moved to Meriden from New Jersey.
Graham described Burt as welcoming to him and other youth who entered the club’s doors. Many of them came from poor and underserved neighborhoods.
“Tex was always the first person you saw when you entered the club,” Graham said. “Tex was all about being impactful to the youth of Meriden.”
Graham, now also a Meriden city councilor, was among several current and former Boys & Girls Club leaders, family members, friends and colleagues to reflect on Burt’s legacy as the club’s longtime leader and advocate for city youth.
“It’s a loss for the city of Meriden,” Graham said of Burt’s passing.
Graham is trying to follow in the former leader’s footsteps — “to hopefully do some justice to the legacy he left behind.”
Burt’s approach was subtle.
“Sometimes, it was just a smile. Sometimes, it was just his hand on your shoulder, telling you, ‘Good job.’ But he just always made you feel welcomed,” Graham said.
Don Maleto was Burt’s immediate successor as the club’s executive director in the mid-2000s. But his relationship with Burt extended decades before that. Burt was Maleto’s Little League coach in the early 1980s.
“He’s a very kind person. He was understanding and dedicated to the kids,” Maleto said. “And he just made sure that everybody got the opportunity to play. He was there for us. He was a kind person.
“Tex obviously went into the career he did for those reasons — to help young people,” Maleto said.
According to Burt’s obituary, he attended Maloney High School and Central Connecticut State University, where he studied education and political science.
Burt would become a teacher in Haddam, but quickly realized the Boys Club was where he could most directly and positively impact youth.
Maleto appreciated the opportunity Burt gave him — “guiding me while I was there. That was the type of manager he was. He was a very loyal person — very loyal to the club, the kids, and staff.”
“He was the first one in the door. He would show up between 7 and 8 o’clock in the morning. And he wasn’ leaving until 7 or 8 at night. The dedication he had to that organization and to the kids of that club is unduplicated,” Maleto said.
Maleto described his mentor as having been a calm and patient presence.
“He was kind. You wouldn’t see him get bent out of shape,” Maleto said. And if Burt encountered a young person or even a staff member who was struggling, he made sure to spend time with them.
“Tex always made time. If you were stressed out about something, he had a way of calming it down,” Maleto said. “He just had a very good demeanor.”
Briana Burt, one of Gary Burt’s grandchildren, saw her grandfather’s impact on local youth firsthand. She regularly visited the club with her grandfather, who she described as having been a father figure in her life.
“We would spend hours in the club,” Briana Burt said. ‘Where they wanted to be’
Over the years, Briana Burt would hear stories from other individuals about her grandfather’s impact on youth — “how he was able to talk with and have a special relationship with everyone that he was working with,” she said. “Any kid that came to the club, he knew their name.”
And she would learn how her grandfather had become a surrogate father figure in their lives.
“He loved and cared for everyone,” Briana Burt said.
Heather Durant, Gary Burt’s daughter, described her father as “the most selfless, humble and caring person I ever met in my life.”
Durant said her father first became involved with the Boys Club while in college.
“He always said to me that he wanted to be at a place where kids didn’t have to. He wanted to be where they wanted to be, not where they had to be. He wanted to affect lives,” Durant said.
“I had people coming to me all the time, telling me, ‘He was the father I never had. He was the second father.’”
Durant said that drive came from her father’s own youth. His own father wasn’t an active presence in his life. His work ethic came from his mother.
“I just think he loved helping kids. And I think he had a great sense of who needed help the most. He could tell somehow,” Durant said.
And Burt would strive to provide those young people with extra attention and guidance.
Ed Zajac, a longtime friend and retired baseball coach at Maloney High School, described Gary Burt as loyal and trustworthy, and as a leader who led through his patient and calm demeanor.
“He was constantly encouraging,” Zajac said. “He was not going to push you to do things beyond which you are capable… His leadership was such that kids knew he wanted them to be better. He wanted to make every individual better.” Mission lives on
Eliot White, president of the Record-Journal, estimated Gary Burt positively impacted thousands, if not tens of thousands of city youth over the last 50 years.
“He never turned any kids away, if they had financial need,” White said.
Gary Burt followed Joseph Coffey in leading the then-Boys Club. “Joe hired him as his assistant. He mentored Gary and I have to say, Joe could not have found a better successor,” White said.
Meriden Mayor Kevin Scarpati said he got to know Tex through his grandchildren, and his own participation in athletic programs with another organization, the YMCA. Scarpati said Burt’s legacy and leadership with the club will continue to live on.
“You can’t move forward without looking back. When you look back at the rich history of the Boys & Girls Club, [Burt’s] name and fingerprints all over it, and will be for decades and decades ahead. His mission will certainly live on.”
According to Burt’s obituary, calling hours will be held from 4-7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 2, at John J. Ferry & Sons Funeral Home, 88 East Main St. in Meriden.
A mass of Christian Burial will be held the following day, Feb. 3, at St. Joseph Church, 22 Goodwill Ave. The service will begin at 10 a.m.
Burt’s family has asked that in lieu of flowers contributions be made in his memory to The Boys and Girls Club of Meriden, 15 Lincoln St, Meriden, CT 06451 or at bgcmeriden.org/donate/.