The walls in Elliot Burton’s third-floor apartment on Pitt Street in Portland tell the story of a man who had passions for poetry, art and nature.
Burton, 74, lived alone in a two-bedroom unit that had white walls covered from top to bottom with neatly arranged pictures from magazines, handwritten poems, knickknacks and clippings from the Portland Press Herald. He collected everything from pine cones to poetry, carried a wallet made of duct tape and rode his bicycle throughout Portland.
On March 8, Burton left his apartment around 6:40 p.m. and was crossing busy Forest Avenue when he was hit by a 2006 Toyota Camry driven by Lindsay Lathrop, 26, of Falmouth. He died from his injuries on March 11 at Maine Medical Center. The accident remains under investigation, although neither speed nor alcohol appeared to be factors and no charges have been filed, police said.
The accident was reported in newspapers and on television, but no further details were provided about Burton’s life until now.
Burton, who used duct tape to repair his shoes and patch holes in his down coat, was a middle school teacher and computer expert in northern Maine schools for about 25 years. For a decade, he assisted people with developmental disabilities in Portland.
He was passionate about political issues, and was a fixture at Portland City Council meetings, speaking often about equality issues and same-sex marriage. He knew Mayor Michael Brennan on a first-name basis. He was a frequent writer to the Press Herald’s Letters to the Editor.
Brennan said they spent a lot of time talking about education and issues facing the city. He said Burton stopped by his office occasionally to share his concerns on issues.
“It’s certainly a loss,” Brennan said of his passing. “He was a recognizable figure within the neighborhood and the community. He would always be surprised when I would say hello.”
Burton spent much of his life searching for his place. He grew up in Milford, Conn., the youngest of three boys. He graduated from Milford High School, then enrolled in a religious studies program at Brown University in Rhode Island. He left college about a month before graduation and enlisted in the Army Reserves. Soon after, he moved to East Harlem, N.Y., to work with inner-city youths.
In the early 1960s, Burton packed a bag and left his family and friends to move to northern Maine, where he built a cabin deep in the woods in the Millinocket area.
“He wanted so much to be an independent person and live and control his life so totally,” said his brother, Kenneth Burton of Stratford, Conn. “He wanted to seek nature for himself. When he moved to Maine, he found a location that was way out in the sticks that he could take care of himself and create his own existence.”
Burton emerged to become a teacher, instructing middle school students in Sebec, Dover-Foxcroft and Millinocket schools on using computers. Lisa Sollnersawyer, a friend and neighbor, recalls Burton using his own money to buy computers for students.
“He had a big heart,” she said. “He really cared. He was very passionate about teaching, education and gay rights. His empathy bone would be the biggest in his body, if there were such a thing.”
Burton never married and didn’t have children, though for many years he provided shelter and guidance to teenagers leaving the state’s foster care system.
“He was very generous with every penny he made,” said his brother. “He took care of youngsters that were homeless and helped serve people in different churches. He was extremely helpful in the causes he was personally interested in. He was always helping others.”
Burton stopped teaching around 1990 and moved to Portland. He took a job with Choices Are For Everyone Inc., a nonprofit that provides home and community support to people with developmental disabilities. He worked in homes, helping residents with daily life skills.
“He spent most of his time walking around Portland showing them everything about the city – from tiny different acorns to … historical places in Portland,” Sollnersawyer said. “He would teach these people about nature and our city.”
Burton spent his days riding his bicycle around Portland and visiting stores on Forest Avenue, near his home. Matthew McNabb, assistant manager at Burger King, said Burton would come in daily, sometimes several times a day, for coffee.
“He was really nice and very patient,” McNabb said. “He loved to talk, so if we had time, we did. He was different. There’s no doubt about that. He never had a bad word to say about anyone. … Some people here are having a pretty hard time. We certainly miss him.”
In his letters to the editor, Burton usually commented on equal rights. Greg Kesich, the Press Herald’s editorial page editor, said he was a regular visitor when the newspaper had weekly open meetings. He said Burton often came to complain about something that M.D. Harmon had written.
Burton recently started writing a letter to the editor about the “public lashings of gay men in Nigeria,” but never finished it.
His last letter to the editor, printed in November, was more personal than most:
“I’m glad that when Mike Michaud announced his intention to run for governor of Maine, he made it clear that he is gay,” Burton wrote. “As a gay Maine resident myself, I welcome him wholeheartedly. Being gay himself, he’ll feel close to all of us who are denigrated as gay.”
Burton had a passion for poetry, especially by Mary Oliver. The walls of Burton’s apartment are filled with Oliver’s poetry, including the line, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
He also enjoyed creating art out of things he collected. Sollnersawyer said he collected everything from pine cones to walking sticks.
“He didn’t waste a thing,” she said. “He was very eccentric. (His apartment) is colorful. It was Elliott. He was very unique. Very wow. … I’ll miss his brilliance and his compassion. A day didn’t go by that he didn’t give me a note or card, or several of them.”
Burton is survived by his two brothers, Kenneth and Robert Burton, of Payson Ariz. He also leaves nieces and nephews.
A service will be held for him at 11 a.m. Thursday at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland.
Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at: