A Great Benefactor, A Better Man Reading’s Nelson Burbank

The Burbank Ice Arena ground breaking (above) was a huge celebration for the town back in 1994. Nelson Burbank (fourth from left) would spearhead the effort. Former Reading Town Manager Peter Hechenbleikner is to Burbank’s left and the late former Reading High Hockey Coach Peter Doherty is far left.

With a combination of what he describes as grit and blind luck, lifelong Reading resident Nelson Burbank made a fortune.

But according to those who know the 97-year-old, if a stranger were to walk up to the retired brokerage firm founder on the streets, they'd never suspect they had just interacted with one of the state's richest citizens.

That's because Burbank, by far the Town of Reading's greatest benefactor, radiates from every pour a coveted characteristic that simply can't be bought: Humility.

"He's the most unassuming person I know, just a down-to-earth soul," said former Reading Selectman Camille Anthony, who first met the philanthropist over 20 years ago, when she deliberated as a then Conservation Commission member on his plan to personally finance the construction of the Burbank Ice Arena off of Symonds Way.

Anthony, one of Reading's longest serving public officials, recalls that the ice arena, a non-profit venture funded entirely by the quiet and unassuming father-of-three, didn't receive the rubber-stamp that might be expected from a town that had to send its high school hockey squad out-of-town for practices.

Instead, his proposal was met with some community resistance, first over wetlands issues on the site, and then later after Burbank proposed the facility be run by an outside non-profit Board of Directors - an arrangement that has seen the town receive more than $2 million in revenues without having to pay a dime for capital expenses.

But she never forgot Burbank's drive to see the multi-million dollar project through, and when she was subsequently elected to the Board of Selectmen in 1994, the same year the community rink first opened its doors, Anthony and other town leaders knew exactly who to turn towards for other community initiatives.

"He's given so much, and he truly doesn't want any honors bestowed upon him for it. [Because of him], there are such wonderful opportunities for the Town of Reading to enjoy these recreational areas," said Anthony, who recalled personally approaching Burbank about purchasing the Mattera Cabin, a historical structure on two-acres of forested land off of Main Street that is now run by the Reading Recreation Division.

Besides the rink donation, Burbank and his late wife, Rita, are perhaps most renowned for emerging in the late 90s with the hopes to build a new indoor pool for the town, which had been forced to shutter its old swimming hole for regulatory reasons.

What resulted was the erection in 1999 of the Burbank YMCA, which besides having both an indoor pool and outdoor splash pad, directly serves some 11,600 area residents through a multitude of initiatives that include licensed before and after school programs, youth and teen summer camps, and health and wellness programs.

The YMCA, which also serves families in North Reading, Wakefield, Wilmington, and Stoneham, also annually provides some $450,000 of direct financial assistance to struggling families.

The founder of the Burbank and Company investment firm, which Burbank sold in 1982 and is now part of Wells Fargo Advisors, has also personally contributed some $600,000 to rehabilitate Memorial Park and partially funded the lights at Hollingsworth Stadium.

And according to Reading resident Carl McFadden, a town native and youth sporting advocate who considers Burbank like a "grandfather" to him, those donations are just the ones people commonly know about.

""How humble and sincere he is," responded McFadden, when asked what strikes him most about the Juniper Road resident. "People don't know half the stuff he has done for the town."

The quiet life

After politely turning down multiple requests from The Middlesex East for an interview, telling staff "he prefers to live quietly", Burbank finally agreed to sit down at his home on a sunny Saturday afternoon to answer questions about what motivated his philanthropy.

Summarizing his response, after surviving 33 combat missions during World War II as a gunner in a B-29 Superfortress and then launching an unlikely but wildly successful career as an investment advisor and brokerage house founder, wanted to give back to a world that gave so much to him and his family.

"During my business career, the time was so demanding that I didn't do much for Reading. But after I retired, I did have that time, so I got involved," said the 97-year-old, sitting in an office in his ranch-style house that overlooks a large back yard littered with trees.

"Listen, I don't like to blow my own horn. It really wasn't a big deal. I felt bad for Reading High School athletes. They were heading out of town to get to practice," later responded the 97-year-old, when asked how he got involved with the Burbank Ice Arena initiative.

Dressed in a flannel shirt and a pair of khaki-style dress pants, Burbank says his entire career in the investment sector can be solely attributed to blind luck, hard work, and one kind Reading resident, the late Harold Krogger, who bumped into the then 20-something-year-old U.S. Army Airforce veteran after the war.

At the time, Burbank was working for General Electric, a job he didn't have much passion for, but which the Reading resident recalled he was lucky enough to return to after serving overseas. Much to his surprise, Krogger, who had been forced to give up a flower business due to gas rationing during the war, encouraged Burbank to drop by Vance, Sanders & Company (now huge and nationally-renowned mutual fund firm Eaton Vance Corp.).

"Walking down Washington Street one day in Boston, I ran into Harold Kogger. I sold flowers for him in high school, and he asked me what I was doing. He told me during the war, he had work as an office supply and stationary man in Boston, and he was impressed with them," he recounted.

"He said, 'Nelson, I don't know what they do, but they're the best group of people I ever met. Pay them a visit and tell them I sent you. So to make a long-story short, I went to work for them, and it was one of the best things I ever did," he continued.

Admittedly, Burbank joined the ranks of Vance, Sanders & Company without even the slightest inkling of how stocks and bonds were traded, never mind how brokerage firms operate. And finding himself competing against a crop of Ivy League educated peers, the Reading resident, who moved to the community with his parents when he was three-years-old, believes he very well might have floundered had it not been for one core value instilled in him since he was a young boy: An uncompromising work ethic.

"It's funny, because I didn't even know what a prospectus was. But back then, if you wanted to work hard and make a lot of calls, you could do it. And I was lucky, because the only thing I really knew how to do was work hard," recalled Burbank, who repeatedly credited Krogger and his first employers for helping him find the vocation he was truly passionate about.

In 1953, after seven years at Vance, Sanders & Company, Burbank took a daring chance by borrowing $5,000 and launching his own brokerage firm, Burbank and Company.

At that point in his life, luck had again struck for the aspiring business owner, who had met his wife, Rita, after a friend begged him to go on a blind date in Lexington. Laughing at the entire arrangement, Burbank recalled his friend only asked him to join him on that date because he didn't have his own set of wheels to get there.

"She lived in Lexington, and a fellow I knew wanted to date her sister, but he didn't have a car. I did," he quipped.

According to Burbank, his late wife, who passed away in 2013 after 63-years of marriage, never once wavered in her support of his career aspirations, and that confidence, especially when he first branched out on his own, was pivotal.

"She just assumed it would all work out," he remarked matter-of-factly, glancing out of his office window towards a house at the corner of Juniper Road, where the couple first lived before the birth of their three children.

What resulted from that venture woul bring applause and fortune Burbank's way.

Besides his flourishing business, which merged in 1982 with H.G. Edwards & Sons, he also served as Chairman of the Boston Stock Exchange's Board of Directors, Chairman of the National Association of Security Dealers (NASD) for New England and New York State, on the NASD's National Board of Governors, and on the Board of Directors for MassBank Corp., New England Digital Corp., and H.G. Edwards and Sons.

Information about most of those honors and achievements can be discovered by simply taking a walk around the Juniper Road resident's plainly furnished home office, which besides a large wooden desk pushed against a window overlooking his back yard, is decorated with framed photos of family and friends, the ice arena, and other remembrances from his life.

Included in those mementos is a framed photograph from another major New York businessman, as he overlooks the shorelines of a beachfront estate. An inscription on the frame reads, "The general".

When asked why he decided to stay within his single-story ranch house, rather than use his considerable wealth to buy a similar sprawling mansion property, Burbank is just as quick to defend his friend as he is to espouse his preference for the residence he made with his wife in the community of his upbringing.

"What's right for one person isn't always right for another. I've just been content living a quiet life. And living a quiet life has its virtues," he commented.

According to close friends like Anthony and McFadden, it's exactly that kind of typical response from Burbank that makes him so unique.

"He had such a successful business. He could have built a McMansion anywhere he wanted, but he didn't. He just stayed on Juniper Circle where he lived with his wife and raised his kids," said Anthony, when told about the conversation in his office. "It's just how he lives his life."

"He gets as excited over watching Reading win a Super Bowl or a Super 8 as he does watching kids in an ice show. I wish there were a million Nelson Burbanks out there, because the world needs more Nelson Burbanks," McFadden later said.

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