Katherine Burgess couldn’t wait “to get the hell out of Dodge.”
She was a teenager and had grown up poor in Fort Worth, Texas. She graduated high school in 1964 and left for Lubbock, where she attended Texas Tech University. In her junior year, she went on her first trip to a “foreign country” – Southern California, as she calls it.
“They did drugs – and I wasn’t in that milieu,” she said of Orange County. “I was from Lubbock, which I don’t think had ever seen a hippie.”
Los Angeles in the late ’60s wasn’t much her scene, but the culture shock prepared her for adventure.
Burgess, a Durango resident since 2004, traveled for work and explored for pleasure. Her wanderings fed a curiosity for how people form personal, professional and political relationships.
Promises bring people together, she decided in a dissertation for her doctorate in humanities, with a major field of study, in part, in ethics. She serves as chairwoman of the Durango Board of Ethics – where she uses her education and experience to delineate breaches of trust and responsibility in public office.
The ethics board has been called to order at least twice since its formation in 2014, most recently after it received complaints about a perceived conflict of interest between City Councilor Chris Bettin and former City Manager Ron LeBlanc. The board dismissed a complaint against Bettin and terminated a compliant against LeBlanc after the city manager settled out of his contract with City Council.
Despite her formal education, Burgess said the best way to learn is through experiencing other cultures, social structures and political systems. It’s the pieces of the puzzle that education shows how to put together, she said.
“Travel is education in the humanities,” she said.
Burgess has become attuned over the years to the character of the places she’s been. She doesn’t love everywhere she’s lived – “Dallas and I weren’t going to be friends,” she said, but each showed her a new way to see the same things in different ways.
A whirlwind startBurgess’ first trip outside the United States came through Chapman College – now Chapman University in Orange, California. It was the spring of 1967, and with some financial help from mom, she boarded a “rusty scow” of a boat with some 400 other students for a monthslong trip to dozens of ports on four continents.
But the ship stopped for no more than a few days at each port as students explored the many coastal cities along its path. The experiences Burgess had in the months she floated were valuable, but she said the trip did no more than whet her appetite to assimilate.
“I’d really like to live in a place longer,” she said.
When she got her bachelor’s degree, Burgess applied for a gig in Kenya with the U.S. Agency for International Development with the Department of State. The job offer came quick, she said – her previous experience in Africa, albeit abbreviated, must have helped her odds.
“I was eager to go, and not many people wanted an assignment in Africa,” she said.
Burgess worked in Kenya from 1969 to 1972, she said. She met Dwight in that time, an employee with the U.S. Foreign Service who would later ask her to marry him. He traveled from Tanzania north to Nairobi, Kenya, for better dental care when the two met, she said. They then went separate ways.
The two met again in 1972 when they were in Washington, D.C., on home leave in what Burgess describes as a “whirlwind courtship.” Dwight got an assignment in Tunisia, and he asked Katherine if she’d wait for him. She said no, so he asked for her hand.
Katherine and Dwight spent their honeymoon night watching Dallas play Washington, D.C., in football – she’s a Cowboys fan, and he, at least at the time, rooted for the Redskins. They watched the game separately – she went to the hotel lobby, and he stayed in the room. He left two days later for North Africa.
Burgess followed and gave birth to Dwight Jr., who goes by Sam, in Tunisia. They lived in Guinea, Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Geneva and then Tunisia again.
And when Dwight took early retirement in 1985 and the couple moved stateside, her aptitude for understanding culture and experiences didn’t go to waste.
Lessons learnedThe Burgess family settled in Dallas, where Katherine started a travel company, hoping to use her experience to help others. But the business didn’t quench her appetite, so she applied in 1990 for a master’s program in humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas.
“Humanities is travel meshed with education,” Burgess said.
She spent 10 years taking one class each semester before earning her graduate degree, Burgess said. The university invited her to the university’s doctoral program, so she sold her travel agency. Her dissertation explored how promises shaped human history, arguing that the relational act is fodder for relationships outside family or tribal groups.
Burgess finished her dissertation in 2004 from her home in SkyRidge subdivision overlooking north Durango, Perins Peak and the La Plata Mountains. She and Dwight built the home and live there today.
Pueblo Community College offered her a job as a history teacher, and she took the position despite not having an in-depth background in the topic. She studied the history of ideas, a subject administrators misinterpreted as a specialization in antiquity.
The job didn’t pay much, but Burgess said she was a demanding college professor.
“I was fair, but I expected people to master the material,” she said. She taught high school and a couple semesters at Fort Lewis College. By 2010, she’d had enough and started Colorado Travel Connection, a travel agency that, at least in part, helps people with financial planning for travel.
She attended Leadership La Plata from 2015 to 2016, and she at times facilitates discussions with Great Decisions, “America’s largest discussion program on world affairs,” according to the website. Burgess also helps with the Life-Long Learning Lecture Series at FLC and is a former president of the Durango chapter of the American Association of University Women.
The time she’s spent traveling and teaching helped her understand that all culture, and politics, starts at the local level.
“We need to get back to manners and respect,” Burgess said. “We’re all neighbors.”