Half a century ago, John Burton looked out over Lake Calhoun just before the start of a race and saw the wind rising on the water.
On shore, planning to watch him sail, were his father, Ward, wife Janette and friend, George Hovland.
“I happened to be lucky enough to be there at the right time,” said Hovland, who was passing through Minneapolis that day on his way home to Duluth.
As the wind picked up, Burton pulled the three onto the boat with him. His father was nearly 80, his wife was pregnant and Hovland had no sailing experience to speak of. But between the strong wind and Burton’s skill as a sailor, they won the race.
A lifelong athlete and Olympic skier, John Cotton Burton died Dec. 5. He was 91.
Burton was born in Minneapolis and grew up sailing, skating, skiing and fishing along the shores of Lake Minnetonka on a piece of land that had been in his family since the late 1800s. He attended the Blake School and then Harvard, earning accolades in both tennis and hockey.
Amid that success — which continued throughout his life — Burton is remembered as sweet and humble. He would stop his car to get out and move a turtle basking in the sun on an open road, said daughter Lisa Ericson.
“I can honestly say that I think he was one of the gentlest men I’ve ever known in my life,” Hovland said.
After serving in the U.S. Navy, Burton studied law at the University of Minnesota, where he and Hovland were on the ski team. The two ended up earning spots on the U.S. team at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo.
“We were all walking around with our mouths open,” Hovland said. “It was like going to the mecca of Nordic skiing in the world at that time.”
The sport remained a steadfast part of Burton’s life. He and Janette — the two had married six months after meeting at a Christmas dance in 1948 — raised five children, each of whom learned to ski when they were small. He led them over trails and jumps he’d built himself, winding across the family land.
“We had kind of a magical life on this beautiful wooded piece of land,” said daughter Sarah Marshall.
Burton returned to Blake in the 1950s to teach English and coach hockey and tennis. In the 1970s and ’80s, he and Janette taught skiing, introducing people to a sport that hadn’t yet gained the popularity it has today.
Burton — who, in addition to teaching, worked as a lawyer, banker and stockbroker — was an athlete into his old age, taking up running and in-line skating. He ran 53 marathons after age 50, his last at 78. The lasting effects of a case of shingles ultimately ended his athletic career, but sports remained a part of his life.
“I think being an athlete and being quite stoic, he made the best of it,” Ericson said.
His last two races were at ages 82 and 83 — an in-line skating marathon and a 10K Nordic ski race. And he was a constant presence at family sporting events.
“He loved sports and he was devoted to his grandchildren,” Marshall said. “He was always there supporting them.”
In winter there were three-generation Christmas hockey games played on the frozen lake. And sometimes, in the brief window after the lake froze and before the snow fell, there were long skates that took the family from one town to another, ice creaking beneath feet in the cold air.
Burton was preceded in death by his wife, brothers Gale and Lindley, and sisters Whitney and Elinor. He is survived by sister Hazel, five children and six grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Dec. 27 at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.