Robert W. Burtner was born in Portland on June 27, 1924, the son of John C. and Martha Hawley Burtner. His father was working for the Oregon Journal newspaper when he received an offer from Oregon Agricultural College President William Jasper Kerr to be the publicist for the Extension Service. John Burtner later became head of the campus news bureau, a position he held for twenty-five years. Bob was only three months old when family moved to Corvallis, but was soon enrolled as a child in Dr. Sara Prentis’ nursery school, which was part of the college’s teaching program.
Cleo Wakefield Burtner was born in Eddyville, Oregon, March 2, 1924, to Julius and Clara Bristlin Wakefield. The family moved to Corvallis when Cleo was in the fifth grade. Her father owned a freight business before going to work for State Farm Insurance in Corvallis. Cleo was in the first class of seventh graders in the old Corvallis High School in Central Park as it became a junior high school.
Cleo and Bob met when both were in junior high school. Cleo, one year ahead of Bob, was president of the Girls’ League and Bob played basketball. He continued to play in high school. In those days, the faculty of the high school named the outstanding boy and girl of the year, and Cleo took the honors her senior year. Her name was placed on the clock in the Corvallis High School library. She took a year off after graduation to work in the State Farm Insurance Company office in Portland.
Bob and Cleo entered Oregon State College as freshmen in 1942. A year later, Bob entered the Navy’s V-12 program that allowed him to go to theological school and, if needed, to enter the chaplaincy. He was sent first to the University of Idaho, Southern Branch, in Pocatello, and graduated after his third year at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska.
On March 4, 1945, Bob and Cleo were married, in the middle of Cleo’s junior year at OSC. They moved to Evanston, Illinois, where Bob began graduate school at Garrett Biblical Institute (now Garret-Evangelical Theological Seminary). He earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree while Cleo worked at a large Methodist church in Evanston.
After finishing his three-year program in two years at Evanston, Bob and Cleo moved to New York, where he attended Union Theological Seminary. It was an exciting time in theology in 1947, with two prominent theologians, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, on the faculty. On one memorable evening at an open house at Niebuhr’s home, they met the poet W. H. Auden, a leading literary figure at Oxford University in England who was living in New York at the time.
During this time, Cleo took a position as a secretary in the dean’s office of Columbia University’s School of Engineering. The president of the University at that time was Dwight D. Eisenhower, and she could often see him standing in his office across the quadrangle.
Bob and a fellow student at Union, Robert E. Chiles, co-edited a book that was published in 1954, A Compend of Wesley’s Theology. It was reprinted in 1982 with a new title, John Wesley’s Theology: A Collection from his Works. It was a compilation of John Wesley’s extensive writings put into a theological framework.
While in graduate school, Bob was ordained a Deacon and then an Elder through the Oregon Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in 1949. While still at Union, Bob received a call from an Oregon District Superintendent offering him the opportunity to begin a new Methodist congregation in Eugene. In October, 1948, he and Cleo moved to the River Road area to start the Trinity Methodist Church. It was the first of two new Methodist churches in Oregon in thirty years; the other was in Sweet Home.
The Burtners spent thirteen years with the church in Eugene. It was during these years their son, David, and daughter, Shelley, where born. With small children, Cleo concentrated her energies mostly on church work, but she was also involved with the League of Women Voters, served for a time as leader of a Bluebird troop, and attended Dave’s Little League games. The church’s membership was mostly composed of young families and many of the programs reflected their desires and energies.
In 1961 Bob was appointed a District Superintendent with responsibility over several Methodist churches in the Salem area, which prompted a move to Salem. Cleo continued her work with the League of Women Voters, added responsibilities with the Camp Fire Board of Directors, and did some work as a teacher’s aide at Morningside Elementary School. Bob continued his work in Salem as well as monitoring legislative action for the Oregon Council of Churches, particularly legislative support for farm workers.
After serving for five years as superintendent, Bob was appointed to the Rose City Park Methodist Church in the Hollywood district of Portland. This was an urban church in a changing neighborhood, providing many challenges for the congregation. With both children in school, Cleo worked as a teacher’s aide at David Douglas High School. She was involved in the Title I program with students who had reading problems or were at risk of dropping out of school. She often took them on field trips in her car and helped them pursue interests that would encourage them to remain in school. She had some wonderful experiences in her seven years there.
In June 1976 Bob was appointed to serve as pastor at his home church in Corvallis. On Memorial Day weekend a year later, an arson fire struck the First United Methodist Church. The congregation responded in a big way, raising funds to supplement insurance money to rebuild.
Bob helped to establish a Pastoral Counseling Center supported by many churches. He also helped to provide funds for people who “fell through the cracks” of government agencies, helping them to cover expenses such as rent, dental work, or overdue telephone bills. The fund honoring Reverend Robert and Cleo Wakefield Burtner was begun by R.C. Wilson, an active supporter of the Foundation, with contributions solicited on behalf of the Burtners and without their knowledge. Contributions from members of the Corvallis First United Methodist Church and the community established the fund, with additional support from the Burtners and their children.
The fund was originally established through gifts from the following individuals: Thomas H. and Ann C. Bateman, George W. and Joan L. Brown III, Wayne and Jane Buck, David K. Burtner, Robert W. and Cleo Wakefield Burtner, Elizabeth Ann Carlson, Emery N. and Merab E. Castle, William W. and Mitzie Dew Jr., Paul E. Hyde, Sheila Gallagher and Kevin Kent, Glenn W. and Judith T. Jaquith, Bert Scott and Sue Joiner, Jay and Carol Kent, Melissa and Brad Kent, Judith C. Kruger, Betty Shideler Lattie, Gene M. and Ruth C. Lear, Russell L. and F. Lincoln, Thomas C. and Patty McClintock, Dick and Mary Mengler, Richard L. and Madgette Mueller, James K. and Joyce R. Maitland, John T. and Linda Myers III, Shirley W. Peterson, David L. and Kathryn E. Smedema, Colonel Vance O. and Mildred Smith, George W. and Audrey Varseveld, Peter G. and Shelley Wallace, Richard and Doris Waring, Leonard J. and Barbara B. Weber, Dr. Neil R. and Carol W. West, Thomas M. and Beverly J. Whitehead, Ben and Elaine Whitely, Bonney B. Williams, Howard L. and Virginia L. Wilson, Robert C. Wilson, Thomas D. and Mariol R. Wogaman.
The scholarship is given to a graduating Corvallis High School senior with a strong interest in history, environmental studies, journalism, home economics, or religious studies.