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Centre Daily Times obituary helps man find home for WWII portrait

This portrait of Earl W. Burd, by Milford Zornes, a war artist drafted by the Army Air Corps to serve in World War II, was recently returned to his family.
This portrait of Earl W. Burd, by Milford Zornes, a war artist drafted by the Army Air Corps to serve in World War II, was recently returned to his family. Photo provided

Had Andy Norton found the right Earl W. Burd?

The Patton Township resident was looking at a Centre Daily Times obituary from 1997. Burd had worked at Penn State, but a more important fact jumped out: his Army service during World War II.

More than 9 million men were inducted into our military during the war. How many were named Earl W. Burd? One.

It looked like a breakthrough, but the search wasn’t complete. Norton’s cousin, Hal Baker, still had work to do before a portrait from more than 70 years ago could make the last leg of a long journey.

For years, Baker, a retired California state employee living in Sacramento, has pursued a special mission.

His father-in-law, Milford Zornes, was a noted artist and leading figure in the California Style movement of watercolor painting from the 1930s to the 1950s. He created New Deal murals for post offices in California and Texas, major museums, the White House and the Library of Congress Collection contain many of his paintings.

In 1942, Zornes was drafted into the Army Air Corps to be a war artist. Sent to the China-Burma-India Theater, he painted scenes from the efforts to resupply forces in China by air and land across “The Hump,” the forbidding Himalayas.

While overseas, Zornes also made portraits of servicemen like Pittsburgh artist Elizabeth Black did in Europe. Some of his subjects were identified on the canvases; some not. He brought back about 30 works.

In 2008, Zornes died at the age of 100. Baker, who married the artist’s only child, Maria, found himself with a small but historic collection that he thought belonged elsewhere.

“Most of these portraits are in a folder or a drawer, and I just hate to see them lay there,” Baker said by phone from his home. “The people who ought to have them are the families, and if I can find them, they should have them.”

Through genealogical sleuthing, he has tracked down five families so far. Burd’s was the latest this spring, but it took more than six weeks of detective work.

Sgt. Earl W. Burd’s portrait sat in a Sunset Beach, Calif., gallery owned by a friend of Zornes. Baker set out with nothing but a name to go on.

Early on, a lead seemed promising. An Earl W. Burd Jr. turned up in Bath, N.Y., near Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes — a familiar region to Baker and Norton from family reunions. Their grandparents once had a house on Keuka, and an uncle owned a boat livery there.

With one call, however, the prospect of revisiting a favorite lake evaporated. Burd said his father, Earl W. Burd Sr., had received a wartime deferment and hadn’t served.

Baker picked up another thread.

A friend and ace genealogical gumshoe Jennifer Pierce obtained a database of wartime draftees that luckily showed just one Earl W. Burd. Pierce dug up that he had been inducted in his hometown of Altoona.

“Once I knew that, I’m looking for Burds in Altoona,” Baker said. “There are four or five of them. But I never talked to anybody there who knew this guy, which surprised me.”

Stymied, Baker turned to Norton.

Another lead popped up: a State College property owned by Burds. Several calls went unanswered. Norton even rode his bicycle over to a listed address, which turned out to be an apartment. Neighbors said it was used only during Penn State football weekends. Baker wrote a letter to no avail.

Then Norton hit pay dirt with the obituary.

“I can’t tell you how huge a help he was,” Baker said.

Burd had married late in life, leaving two stepchildren. One was named Barbara Smith — a challenge to pin down from online directory searches. Baker’s calls led to nothing but an earful from one woman irate at being asked.

He had better luck with Thomas Beaver, the stepson. At the time of Burd’s death, Beaver was living in Bedford County. Starting from there, Baker tracked down a phone number and address in Fishertown, not far from Bedford, but the number had been disconnected.

Baker didn’t give up. He called the local barber shop, reasoning that, in a small town, someone there surely would know Beaver. It had limited hours, though, and wasn’t open.

Next up was the grocery store. An employee who answered said she knew Beaver and his wife and would pass along a message.

Before that could happen, Norton came through again. He found another number for Beaver, and this time, Baker connected.

It was awkward at first — a call from California out of the blue, something about a 72-year-old painting. Baker hung in there. For confirmation, he didn’t mention where the portrait had been done, then asked where Burd had served.

“Thomas told me, ‘Well, he was in Burma,’ and I thought, ‘Bingo, I’ve got the right guy,’ ” Baker said.

Beaver was hesitant at first, but Baker eventually won him over. They arranged for the portrait’s recent shipment. The case was closed.

Others remain.

Baker intends to continue his searches and reunite every one of the 15 or so portraits with names. The unidentifiable ones probably will be donated to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

“I try to tell people that they really do have a lot of historical value because they’re a record of someone’s life in World War II and they’re done by a national artist,” Baker said.

Earl W. Burd’s portrait has come home, and it’s on to the next trail, more twists and turns. Wherever they lead, Baker will follow because the gratitude rewards the many hours. A New York City man was so appreciative, he flew out to have lunch with Baker and bring back his father’s portrait to give to his dad as a birthday present.

Then there was the North Carolina man. Baker recalled he could only send a written thank you.

“He wrote, ‘Hal, I couldn’t call you on the phone. I would have cried. When the portrait came, it was like having my father there all over again.’ ”

Chris Rosenblum writes about local people, places and events. Please send column ideas to chrisrosenblum@comcast.net.

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