KINGSLEY— Hundreds of folks are expected to memorialize John Lawrence Burgess on Saturday morning, paying tribute to a young Native American man whose dreams of a professional basketball career ended with a fiery helicopter crash in Vietnam.
Burgess was honored earlier this summer at the Arlington National Cemetery. Soil taken from the Arlington grave will be put on his grave site in Kingsley, said Jack Pickard, who is organizing the memorial.
“There were five of us from our class in Vietnam at the same time, and all but John came home,” Pickard said. “I got there the month John went down (in June), and I knew he’d gone down in July sometime. That set me on edge for the rest of my tour.”
Burgess was originally born Larry Waukazoo in a family of eight children. He was adopted by the Burgess family, along with a sister and brother when they were preschoolers.
The superb athlete and basketball standout graduated from Kingsley High School in 1967 and joined the Army a year later to serve his country.
Burgess was two weeks away from a leave when he was reported as missing in action when his UH-1H Iroquois helicopter was shot down near the Cambodian/South Vietnam border on June 30, 1970. Only one of the five-man crew survived. The body of Burgess was never recovered.
The final recovered remains of Burgess and two other servicemen were grouped in a single casket and buried at Arlington on July 2.
Pickard attended the ceremony, along with about 20 of Burgess’s friends and relatives.
“The military honor guard took the casket off the horse carriage and carried it into the church ...,” he said. “They did it with such precision. It was just amazing.”
Pickard said a few words in Arlington about their tight friendship.
“I talked about how we had fist fights, real ones, then we’d turn around and grab something to eat,” he said. “How he worked two different jobs and still went to school and did sports.”
Peggy Hardley of Traverse City, a biological sister who grew up in foster homes, said she plans to talk Saturday about Louise Burgess, John’s adoptive mother, on Saturday.
“She never hid from him that he was adopted. She told him he was native American and always took him back to Peshawbestown where he was born and lived so he knew where he came from,” she said.
Burgess’s great-grandfather was a Civil War sharpshooter and his grandfather served in World War I. He was also the great-great-grandson of Pen-dun-wan, Chief Peter Waukazoo, according to an earlier Record-Eagle interview with genealogist Art Dembinkski.
Hardley said Burgess’s brother Ron Waukazoo also served in Vietnam, but won’t attend Saturday’s memorial.
“This story is too close to him,” she said.
Burgess left behind a son, Richard Van Weezel, who was born to Darleen Van Weezel, whom he dated in high school. She raised Richard with her husband, who adopted him.
Richard is unable to attend Saturday, said Darleen in a phone interview from her Texas home.
“It will be closure for his son. He was in Washington; he did receive the flag,” she said.
Pickard said that organizing the Kingsley memorial has triggered memories of Vietnam and the question of why some came home from Vietnam and others didn’t.
The memorial is sponsored by the Grand Traverse Area Veterans Coalition and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. It begins at 8 a.m. with donuts and coffee at Kingsley High School. Services start at 9 a.m. Afterward, participants will proceed to the Evergreen Cemetery, 3456 East M-113, where Burgess has a grave site and marker. Elmer’s Crane & Dozer will be at the high school to display a large U.S. flag.