Friday, December 5, 2014

Down From the Mountains, Above the Treetops

We always have a seven-foot Christmas tree.

We know this because ever since my wife and I moved back to the Triangle in 1994, we have bought our annual Fraser fir at a grassy open lot on Cary’s Kildaire Farm Road. That’s where, since 1992, former NC State basketball All-American Tommy Burleson—all 7-feet, 2-inches of him—and his three sons have sold trees they grow on their farm in the North Carolina mountains.

For five weeks, starting at Thanksgiving, either Burleson, his sons or one of their farm hands are at the lot, trimming trees and loading them up on the cars of loyal customers and a fresh crop of newbies who wonder what the story is with the guy who is taller most of the trees he sells.

During their five-week selling season, someone stays on site in a small camper in the back of the lot. They are next to a church and a hospital, so they aren’t too worried about what might happen. Tommy returns home to Avery County, where he’s the head of the planning commission, but comes back every weekend with a fresh load of trees to check on business and sometimes to catch a Wolfpack basketball game.

Ever since our first son was born in 2002, we’ve taken our kids to have their picture taken with Mr. Burleson; they look forward to it as much as seeing Santa.

It’s always breath-taking to watch him pick up our tree and place it down on top of our SUV.
The other day, we stopped to get our tree on the way home from the NC State-UNC football game. Tommy’s whole family—sons Robert, David and Quentin and his wife Denise—were there, and we reveled in the big football win. It was pretty eye-opening that our oldest kid, not yet a teenager, is chest high to Burleson.

He’s always been tall for his age.

Tommy’s known for playing basketball, of course: in the Olympics, in college and in the NBA. Coached by Norm Sloan, inspired by fans and driven by the desire to be the best center in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Burleson helped NC State win two ACC titles and the 1974 NCAA championship. Sure, he got assistance from his best friend, All-American David Thompson, and point guard Monte Towe, but Burleson was the centerpiece Sloan began with when he built one of the best teams in college basketball history.

Burl is one of only four players in ACC men’s basketball history to win back-to-back Everett Case Awards as the most outstanding player in the ACC Tournament, and his 38 points and 13 rebounds in the 1974 tournament championship game against Maryland and Len Elmore might still be the best game ever played by an ACC big man.

But this isn’t a basketball story. Burleson doesn’t sell his home-grown trees because he needs the money, even though he had some agent-related financial troubles after he his professional basketball career ended in 1981. He doesn’t sell them to pay for his professional speed boat racing career, death-defying hobby he picked up after his on the court were over. And he doesn’t do it to fuel his time at the poker table, though he’s something of a cardsharp too. Last fall, he won first place—and more than $10,000—in a World Series of Poker No-Limit Hold ‘em Tournament he and his son David entered on a lark in Indiana.

Tommy sells trees to help his friends in Malawi. He raises thousands each year to pay for travel expenses to the impoverished landlocked country in southeastern Africa, one of the world’s least developed countries, with a low life expectancy and a high infant mortality rate.

He sneaks across the border from Ethiopia, then folds his 48-inch legs into a minibus to take medical supplies—mostly aspirin and antibiotics—to the town of Nkhoma, where Presbyterian missionary Barbara Nagy of Morganton, North Carolina, is a resident physician specializing in prenatal care, at the  local hospital. She’s part of a long line of missionaries from that denomination who have been in Malawi since David Livingstone first arrived there in 1859.

(Sneak? How does a giant who has towered head-and-shoulders over everyone he knows except Bill Walton his entire life sneak anywhere? Well, a bazooka and a crisp salute helps.)

Since 2005, Burleson has made one or two annual trips to Malawi with 10 other volunteers from Fletcher Presbyterian Church in Newland, North Carolina, on behalf of the Tommy Burleson Christian Evangelistic Ministries, his newly minted 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

Nagy has been at the hospital, which was built by missionaries in 1915, for the last decade, after working for years in western North Carolina and as a missionary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She first elicited Burleson’s help in 2004, and he’s been one of her biggest supporters ever since. The hospital gets about 80 percent of its support from 51 churches in the Presbytery of Western North Carolina, but Burleson’s foundation and others such as Franklin Graham’s Boone-based Samaritan’s Purse help provide other support.

“It was a little rugged the first time we went,” Burleson admits. “We had outhouses and mostly outside facilities. I got an intestinal virus the first time I went.”

There was also an outbreak of viral meningitis on that first trip, something that could be treated with the Amoxicillin Burleson and his resource team had packed in their Actionpacker cargo boxes.

“We were saving lives within 15 minutes after we got there,” Burleson says.

In the decade since, the resource team has added 100 meters to the hospital’s men’s ward, 75 meters to the women’s ward, an updated pediatric unit, a new surgical theater and other hand-built first-world improvements. The Malawi government also has awarded Burleson the rights to operate 10 health clinics in the country, of which five are now complete.

“We’ve gone from serving a population of about 30,000 to covering more than 250,000,” Burleson says.

Burleson and his foundation have also helped educate some of the kids of the village. Currently, he’s funding scholarships for four electricians who signed contracts to work at the hospital for five years after they receive their degrees.

Tommy has raised money with low-cost basketball camps and clinics for decades. He’s had bowling tournaments that included many of his friends from the world of basketball. But his primary fundraiser is selling the trees he’s grown on his farm in the mountains.

At 62, Burleson says he’s within a year or so of retirement from his county planner job in Avery County. He’d like to spend even more time raising money for his foundation and doing even more good work in Malawi.

So if you need a fresh-cut fir this year, go see Tommy or one of his sons in Cary. Most all of their trees are seven feet or taller.

You can easily tell.