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Coronavirus takes the life of Flint’s first black superintendent and the community weeps

Photo: Dr. Nathel Burtley

The community both grieves and reminisces after Flint Community Schools’ first Black superintendent, Dr. Nathel Burtley, died at age 79 April 6 after an approximate three week fight with COVID-19 at Hurley Medical Center.

Burtley’s son, Attorney Chris Burtley remembers his dad as one who very dedicated to education, first and foremost, and to unprivileged and lower income people, having himself been a product AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children); a program administered and funded by federal and state governments to provide financial assistance to needy families.

“I think that’s what really drove him: his job and his interactions with people,” Burtley’s son said.

He also said family and community drove his dad.

“That’s how he got to Flint. That’s how he stayed in Flint. That’s how he made Flint his home. That’s how much he cared about Flint,” Attorney Burtley said.

Among his son’s fond memories of his dad is his dad’s passion about working at Michigan State, which is where his dad received his PhD.

“It tied into his goal of trying to get especially inner city students to pursue undergraduate education.”

Burtley took his son to Michigan State games when his son was a child. Michigan State was really “into desegregation,” according to Burtley’s son. The university had one of the first Black presidents, one of the first Black athletic directors and one of the first major integrated football teams. Burtley’s son attended Michigan State, as well.

“I remember going out in the community in Flint and people knowing him and the reactions I would get. For example, the first couple days of school, when they call out your name for roll call, almost each year, a teacher would get to my name and they would ask me if I was related to him like they didn’t know already. Then, in front of the whole class they would give a story about him. It became a tradition every year, just hearing the people that knew him.”

Hearing how his dad treated people and the respect they had for him always colored how Attorney Burtley viewed his dad.

“I knew he wasn’t just saying things. People really backed it up and believed it as well, especially going to Flint Schools.”

Nathel Burtley overcame a stutter growing up and his first degree was in speech pathology. Burtley started his administrative career as an elementary school principal in Grand Rapids and also served as high school principal. He served as interim superintendent and assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction the Ypsilanti Public Schools for five years. He was deputy superintendent of Flint Community Schools and eventually became district leader. He served as Michigan State University’s assistant athletic director following his retirement.

Upon returning to Flint, he worked for a school management company called The Leona Group and later as principal of Northridge Academy, in Flint.

In 1995, Burtley was honored by former Congressman Dale Kildee for his work. He was a Distinguished Alumni Award Michigan State University award recipient in 1996.

According to his son, Burtley had minor COVID-19 symptoms at first; “nothing more severe than the typical cold or flu.” The whole family got sicker around the same time, which concerned Attorney Burtley.

“My mom had symptoms like loss of taste. Putting it all together I said ‘I think this might be COVID.’ If it’s COVID, as it was progressing, I was like ‘I think you should go to the hospital and get tested.”’

Nathel Burtley was not in ICU initially. He wasn’t on the ventilator or oxygen, but was on an IV.

“We talked to him on the phone. Then, gradually, he started regressing. Maybe a week into it, he needed the ventilator. From there his sickness started to regress. It’s a mysterious disease, but it’s a very serious disease. It can be deadly.”

The rest of the family has fully recovered and is doing well.

“One of the hardest things, especially in the Black community is, after a loss, it’s our culture to be around people. (When a loved one dies,) that’s when everyone drops over your house. That’s when everyone drops off food. That’s when your cousin you haven’t talked to in 10 years drives from wherever. That’s just typical and what you expect, and none of that is really happening now because of the circumstances.”

The family has had to find non-traditional ways to mourn, according to Attorney Burtley. This has been the most difficult part of his dad’s passing for Attorney Burtley, the immediate family and other family and friends who would like to be near the family during this trying time.

“When it’s on TV it’s one thing, but when it’s someone you know, it gets a little closer to home. It hits you differently.”

The family views Burtley’s deceased body April 11 at the funeral home and will do a small burial to prevent spread of the disease, according to Attorney Burtley. There will be a ceremony after the restrictions are lifted.

Attorney Burtley said he feels his father not only belonged to the family, but to the Flint community. He said a lot of Black families value education as his dad inspired him to do because they came from a generation that didn’t have opportunity or were of the first generation to have access to jobs and to leadership roles.

Norman Bryant said for about three years he had dealings with Nathel Burtley, having been a member of the Flint School Board. He and others were introduced to the National Caucus of Black School Board Educators by Burtley. He remembers that when Burtley took over at the Flint Community Schools middle school sports had been taken away within the Flint school system, which Burtley was instrumental in bringing back. The district won three state championships in 1995. Bryant and Burtley continued to have lunch together after they retired.

He was for the kids,” Bryant said. “I went to the National Caucus of Black School Board Educators every year after Nat introduced us to it.”

Dr. James Ray was the second Black superintendent of the Flint Community Schools from 1995-2001. He knew Nathel Burtley since 1981 both personally and professionally. Ray remembers that every year both Burley and he was there there were budget cuts as resources to Flint from GM started to decline. Ray remembers well the sign Burtley had posted in the old Sarvis Center, which was behind the school board. The sign displayed the question: “Is it in the best interest of students?”

Ray considers one of Burtley’s major achievements to be the authentic partnership which enabled Flint teachers to go to Michigan State and co-teach and Michigan State teachers to come to Flint. Another accomplishment of Burtley Ray notes was the fact he helped move funds to reduce class sizes in early grades.

“He was a kind man. He was deeply committed to providing for young people. He was a strong family man, and we’re all going to miss him dearly,” Ray said.

Ira Rutherford is a former superintendent of Beecher Community Schools from 1980-2000 and of Flint Community Schools in 2005. Rutherford and Burtley were also close personally and professionally. Both men along with Peter Murphy, former UTF president, were instrumental in the class size initiative that became law in Michigan. Both Rutherford and Burtley were Michigan State fans and would go to numerous football and basketball games together. They were both members of the National Association of Black School Educators. Rutherford also remembers Burtley as one who liked to sing and write songs. In fact, when Mel Brannon retired from the Urban League as the organization’s former president, Burtley sang at the affair. Burtley released a record when he retired, Rutherford recalls.

“We shared notes as fellow superintendents,” Rutherford said. “He helped me tremendously, having more experience in central office in Ypsilanti before coming to Flint. I didn’t have any other experience in K-12 education rather than consulting. In the light of all the challenges he had to endure, he was always very positive. It’s a big loss to the community, his family and me personally.”

“Dr. Burtley was one of my role models, an example of everything I hoped to achieve,” said Mayor Sheldon Neeley. “One of my first jobs out of college was working for Flint Schools and he had a profound influence on my career and my life. Working under his leadership, I was in awe of everything Dr. Burtley was able to achieve. He inspired me, and many others, to see that any one of us can make a difference and that all of us should make a difference. In life, I have learned that legacy is not about physical possessions you leave someone; legacy is about the impact you leave in someone. Dr. Burtley was a trailblazer and a mentor who made a permanent positive impact on me and our community.”

Attorney Burtley said people who would like to support the family should first and foremost stay in the house to prevent the spread of coronavirus. He also said the family is working to develop a scholarship fund with the Community Foundation of Flint aimed at Flint youth. Details about the scholarship will be available on the Community Foundation of Flint website.

L to R.: Dr. Ira A Rutherford, Dr. James Hawkins (former superintendent., ), Dr. Walter Burt (former superintendent.) Dr. James Ray (former superintendent ) Dr. Burtley, John Mathews (Vice President of Steel Case office furniture company), Dr. William Coates (former superintendent and current head of the Leona Group)
Dr. Nathel Burtley




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