Carra Burton George

January 3, 1921-November 3, 2018
Thursday, June 27, 2019
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Our beloved “Steele Magnolia,” Carra (Edna) Burton George, transplanted her Dixie roots in 1946 from the red, iron-rich earth of Steele, Alabama, to Montana’s “Big Sky Country.” It was in Laurel, Montana, where she settled, blossomed and thrived until her passing November 3, 2018—two months to the day shy of her 98th birthday. Carra was a southern-born woman who possessed the strength of steel, yet the fragile beauty of a magnolia.

On January 3, 1921, Carra was born in the heart of Dixie “early on a frosty morning” at home on the family’s Chandler Mountain cotton farm outside of Steele. Carra was the ninth of 11 children born to Stella (Redden) and William “Box” Burton.  She remained close to her siblings throughout her life, with extended annual trips to Alabama for Burton family reunions almost every year until several years before her death.

As with many rural Americans during the Great Depression, it was difficult to get an education be- yond eighth grade. Carra hungered to continue her education. She left the cotton farm soon after her 18th birthday and moved to nearby Gadsden, Ala- bama, where she finished high school and attended a small business school. During that time, she worked as a hostess at the popular White Palace Café, while also working full-time as a civil service clerk, inventorying and ordering war supplies, under security supervision, at the U.S. Army-Air Force Specialized Depot outside of Gadsden.

Although Carra loved Alabama, she couldn’t wait to leave and see the world. Her dreams came true when she fell in love with the dashing Montana boxer, Charles “Sonny O’Day” George, who was stationed at Camp Siebert during World War II. They married on September 20, 1944.

During war time, Carra worked hard, lived frugally and saved to buy a small farm back on Chandler Mountain—an investment that not only supplemented her future higher education, but later provided benefits for her young children during her years as a dedicated homemaker, student and community volunteer.

In 1946 after the war, Carra and Sonny moved to Laurel, Montana, to start his business and establish a home. In 1950, Carra and Sonny built the only home they ever owned, and where they raised their three daughters.

Carra was determined to be a teacher. She exhibited stamina and “spunk” (one of her favorite words) as she navigated her course to achieve her dream. Carra commuted 30 miles daily from Laurel to Billings on a two-lane highway, year-round, to attend college—even when pregnant! At the same time, she juggled raising her family; maintained her home and garden; studied long hours after putting her children to bed; typed lengthy term papers on her manual Royal typewriter – and graduated from college with honors.

She received her Associate of Arts degree from Rocky Mountain College in 1948. Carra continued her education at Eastern Montana College, now Montana State University-Billings (MSUB) completing her Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education in 1955, and Master of Science in Special Education in 1970.

It was important to Carra to wait until her daughters were all in school before beginning her teaching career in 1962. She taught grades 1-3 at Fred Graff Elementary School for 24 years, retiring in 1986. During summer breaks from teaching, she commuted to Billings to work on her master’s degree, and to teach part-time in the Special Education Laboratory School at MSUB.

Carra was an honored recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award for her dedication to academia by her Rocky Mountain College alma mater. She was recognized throughout her career as a leader. While teaching, she was elected president of the Laurel Education Association. After retirement, she was elected to the Laurel School Board, ending that tenure as chairperson. For over 25 years, Carra was an active member of the teachers’ honorary, Alpha Delta Kappa (ADK), and served a presidential term.

A life-long Democrat, Carra didn’t hesitate to campaign for party candidates, platforms and causes throughout her life. She recalled her mother writing to President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, and the follow-up referral to a land bank helped save the family cotton farm. She was grateful for a government that worked for success of a robust middle class, and believed in programs to assist citizens to reach self-sufficiency through access to education, health care, and nutrition. She was particularly grateful for Social Security and Medicare.

Every U.S. presidential election, Carra’s ritual included setting-up an area in front of the TV with her percolator coffee pot in preparation for an allnighter to await election results. Her front yard was always peppered with campaign yard signs, and enthused townspeople would drive out of their way to see who she endorsed. She served the Laurel Democratic Club for many years as president and secretary-treasurer, as well as serving positions with the Yellowstone County Democratic Club.

Highlighting Carra’s political dream and acknowledging all her years of hard work, she was selected as a Montana delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1992 to support Bill Clinton’s presidential bid; and again, for his re-election in 1996.

At the ‘92 convention in Madison Square Garden, on the same spot where her husband boxed 60 years earlier, Carra was among delegates chosen to take stage beside presidential candidate Bill Clinton as he accepted his party’s nomination. Because she was a well-spoken, esteemed educator, Carra was chosen before the convention, by the Democratic National Committee, for nationwide interviews on CBS, and for a series of feature articles in the New York Times. The NYT reporter traveled to Montana for a pre-convention interview with the then 71-year-old Carra, and accompanied her throughout the convention in New York, and through her travels within the Big Apple, to get Carra’s slant on the proceedings. Carra was among delegates invited to share the stage with President Clinton again during the ’96 convention, and was invited to both Clinton Presidential Inaugurations, where she brought several of her grandchildren as her escorts.

This culminated in

President Clinton’s first words before delivering his speech at Billings’ MetraPark, years later, when he stepped to the microphone and proclaimed with open arms, “I love you, Carra George!”—followed by an eruption of appreciative applause and an ovation as Carra sat close by in her wheelchair, with silent tears rolling down her still unwrinkled cheeks.

Hillary Clinton repeated those same words during her Montana presidential campaign tour, and Carra received a special audience with her in Missoula. Carra’s friends tell the story of sitting at Carra’s kitchen table having coffee when Hillary Clinton called Carra to voice concern that Carra had been ill. After chatting a few minutes and assuring Hillary she “was just fine, but thank you, dear,” Carra hung up the phone and sat back down with her friends, all of whom stared at her in amazement as Carra continued their conversation as though it were a neighbor who had called. To Carra, it was!

Carra was a civil rights trailblazer for women and actively worked with her political party to advocate passage of the Americans with Disability Act and the Equal Rights Amendment (Montana ratified it in 1974, but it failed passage in 15 other states.) She appeared on the front page of The Billings Gazette, during a McGovern presidential campaign visit in the ‘70s, with her young daughter, in a shirt that read, “A Woman’s Place is in the House and the Senate!”

She believed in affordable healthcare for all, and in the 1990’s traveled with then senatorial candidate, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, to both Canada and Mexico to advocate for affordable prescription drugs.

Carra followed the adage: “Put your money where your mouth is!” She led a simple life and was generous with her donations and volunteer time, not only to political candidates, but to civil rights causes, primarily focused on women’s health and reproductive issues, as well as environmental causes. For many years, she not only tithed generously to her church, but passionately to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Foundation and Arbor Day Foundation.

Carra’s family was her priority and was the focus of her love and sacrifice until the day she died. She was dedicated to providing her daughters with love of the arts, including mandated schedules for early morning piano lesson practices before and after school. She used her farm money to pay for memorable annual vacations to the South, Midwest and West, most fondly on the Northern Pacific “Vista- Dome North Coast Limited” trains. Trips included visits to museums, concerts and sight-seeing tours in major cities.

Saturday trips to Billings in the 1950’s and 1960’s included wearing matching mother-daughter dresses (hats and gloves to church); trips to the library to check out books and records, shopping at Billings’ legendary Hart-Albin’s Department Store; and, ending the day with a special treat of 15-cent hamburgers at Sandy’s Drive-in and “Cracker Jacks!” Carra spent endless hours reading to her children, and made sure they learned her favorite hymns and Stephen Foster songs to play on the piano while she sang along.

Carra was the “irritating mother” who called ahead to make sure parents were home before allowing her daughters to attend slumber parties; waited up for them to get home after dates; and made sure chores were evenly distributed utilizing creative “Fight Savers.” She proudly attended every one of their events, and went out of her way to make sure her middle-class family had all the basics for a wonderful education and success.

Because her only doll during the Great Depression was a hammer with a face painted on it, Carra was determined “her girls” would have beautiful dolls. She started collecting Madame Alexander dolls that were not only gifted to her children and grandchildren, but she kept her own favorites in a collection to admire.

Carra always had a bountiful garden and when she was too old to garden, she paid others to plant one and keep the produce. Her flowers and yard were glori- ous. She was an avid recycler – even washing plastic produce bags to use again. Carra loved to travel throughout the country with her children and retired teacher friends. She stayed informed by reading daily newspapers and was glued to TV news programs. Her kitchen table was cluttered with clipped articles saved to mail in long letters to her children and grandchildren. For someone who didn’t relish cooking on a daily basis, she was noted for her delicious spaghetti and meatballs (a two-day process), southern fried chicken and potato salad, homemade Jewish dills and bread and butter pickles, chokecherry jelly (picking berries was an annual ritual), and delectable chocolate fudge, German chocolate and coconut cakes. Carra loved a good margarita – on the rocks, with salt!

Carra was a lifelong Methodist, and had been a member of the Laurel congregation since 1946. A Celebration of Life service will be held at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 3, at the Laurel United Methodist Church with fellowship and interment following the service.  Carra will be interred beside her husband, Charles “Sonny O’Day” George in the Laurel Cemetery.  

We have been proud to call Carra ours, and cannot imagine life without her! Carra is survived by her daughters: Mary-Glynn (Terry) Cromwell; Nancy Lynn (Sam) Talboom; and Shelley (Larry) Van Atta; grandchildren: Justin Jacobs, Carra “Carlee” Jacobs, Leonard (Kristin) Jacobs, Charlie (Audrey) Cromwell, Lauren (Ross) Gustafson, David (Dierdre) Cromwell, John Van Atta, Nick Van Atta, and Marissa Van Atta; and great-grandchildren: Ethyn and Kyra Thompson, Thomas Cromwell and Gerald Gustafson. Carra was preceded in death by her husband (Charles “Sonny O’Day” George); parents, 10 siblings, and son-in-law John Pingree.

Memorials to Carra can be made in her name to the Laurel Methodist Church; to Rocky Mountain College (earmarked for her granddaughter Marissa Van Atta’s Endowed Scholarship); the Southern Poverty Law Center; or, by donating children’s books, in her honor, at the public or school library of your choice.



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