Sam Kaplan, the U.S. ambassador to Morocco, couldn't make it home to Minnesota for the May 14 funeral of longtime Twin Cities businessman Marvin Ronald Burton, who he called "one of my dearest friends." Instead, he sent an impassioned eulogy that read, in part:
"It is his smile that I remember most, that completely wonderful Ron Burton smile ... an all-knowing smile, a special smile that promised secrets, as if he were the bird that had swallowed a canary," Kaplan said. "For, you see, Ron Burton was a man of very intense curiosity; it defined him. He was just immensely curious about people; he wanted to know everything about anyone he ever met. And when he discovered something valuable, he would say, with delight, 'Oh, is that so.' I think of all the thousands of times I heard him say, 'Oh, is that so' as he smiled his special smile, confirming he had learned something."
It was that curiosity and sociability, Kaplan and others said, that made Burton not just a successful businessman, but a gentleman loved by many.
Burton died of pancreatic cancer at his Minnetonka home on May 12, his 77th birthday.
The "self-made and self-styled" businessman grew up in St. Paul's West Side Flats, an immigrant neighborhood on the Mississippi River flood plain that has long since been redeveloped, said his son David, of Minnetonka. Burton's father was a presser at a dry cleaner. When his parents' house flooded, he moved into his grandparents' living room for a couple of years.
He graduated from Humboldt High School, where he was captain of the basketball team. "He was a very social kid, a leader," his son said.
After high school, in 1954-55, he served in the Navy on an aircraft carrier near Cuba. When he returned to the Twin Cities, he married his teenage sweetheart, Elaine Soskin, went to the University of Minnesota under the GI Bill and began selling shoes at Napier's, then at Nicollet Avenue and 8th Street in downtown Minneapolis.
Soon he moved into sales at Dayton's Oval Room. "One of his customers was the wife of an insurance executive who was so enamored with his salesmanship skills that she introduced him to her husband," who hired Burton at Pennsylvania Life Insurance Co., David said. Burton rose through the ranks at Penn Life and in the 1960s ran the company's Minneapolis office. Next he worked for Globe Life Insurance Co., running its Midwestern branch from the Twin Cities and "adding an army of salespeople," David said.
By then, the Burtons had three young children, and Burton was starting to rue the business travel that took him away from his family. And so, David said, he bought a nursing home in Stillwater, the first of 25 in the Midwest he would buy and run. From 1971 to 1981, he ran Geri-Care, headquartered in St. Louis Park, the largest nursing-home operator in the five-state area.
In the early 1980s, he sold the business. He was just 45, and semi-retired. That, his son said, gave him the opportunity to successfully "dabble" in a number of insurance, health-care and banking businesses, to mentor others and to serve on the boards of several nonprofit health-care organizations.
After living in St. Louis Park for decades, Burton and his wife moved to Minnetonka seven years ago. He was very active at his synagogue, B'nai Emet in St. Louis Park, serving as president of its congregation for several years.
He loved getting out on the water and "always had a boat somewhere, maybe a remnant of his Navy days," his son said. Every weekend of David's childhood, he said, he and his family would live in a houseboat on the St. Croix River.
David described his father as "good-natured and always impeccably dressed."
"When he would enter the room, he was magnetic -- he gave off an energy that let everyone know who was in charge, even if he didn't say a word," he said. "He had this great charm and wit, no matter who you were and where you were in your life."
His father had such winning ways, David said, that he could coax a table out of a full restaurant even with no reservation, showing "how the word 'no' is really just an immediate opportunity for dialogue and perhaps a perfect time to make a new friend."
In his eulogy for his father, David said, "Jewish mysticism says that when a person passes away on their birthday, it is a sign of a Tzadik -- a righteous person. Throughout my dad's life, it gave him great joy to help other people. Not wishing anything in return, Dad often did so quietly and rarely spoke of these good deeds. He'd help old friends and new ones, providing guidance, financial support or his unique ability to find a way though a difficult problem."
Wrote Kaplan: "He understood that business wasn't about numbers and spreadsheets, it was about people and relationships. And nobody knew better than Ron how to create and nurture those crucial business relationships."
In addition to David, Burton is survived by his wife of 55 years, Elaine; another son, Daniel, and a daughter, Deanna, both of Minneapolis; a brother, Arnold, of Minneapolis, and five grandchildren. Services have been held.
Pamela Miller 612-673-4290