There is a new tree on campus. Its roots are settling in near the Hopper-Danley Spiritual Center. While it braces for colder weather, the flowering crabapple will be a sight to behold in springtime as it matures.
“It’ll put a smile on us for a couple weeks a year at least. It’s perfect,” said Gerrad Burger, ’95. The tree was planted in memory of his late wife, Dr. Lisa Burger, ’91, ’02, ’16. The couple shared a love for trees and grew many in the yard of their Grand Forks home. Lisa was cremated, so without a burial plot to visit, this quiet spot serves that purpose.
“She liked the chapel area on campus. That was one of her favorite places,” said Gerrad, adding that the tree will be a reminder of her life for the community she cared so much about.
Lisa served more than 20 years as a UND staff member and administrator, most recently as the Assistant Vice President for Student Academic Services. Just like pink petals in the spring, Lisa had a way of putting a smile on others’ faces.
It was easy for Gerrad to come up with the attributes that best described the love of his life: selfless, happy and kind.
“I used to call her smiley,” said Gerrad who went on to share the reasons behind those three little words. “We could be at the grocery store, the garden center or just about anywhere and would inevitably run into someone she knew, stop and talk.” On her birthday, she always picked a restaurant her two sons would enjoy. And during chemotherapy, she insisted Gerrad not inconvenience himself by accompanying her to appointments. “We took her for granted because that’s just who she was, every day.”
The two met at UND. Gerrad had reenrolled in the College of Business, and Lisa was pursuing a degree in Public Relations and Aviation Services. They were rarely apart.
After marrying, Gerrad became an accountant at Simonson Station Stores, Inc., and Lisa was hired as a recruiter within UND’s Student Services. She worked her way up to an administrative level and, along the way, received recognition for her commitment to the University and its students.
Lisa was an avid volunteer on campus and an advisor and mentor for young women in the Alpha Chi Omega sorority. Every Christmas, cards from former sorority members would fill the Burger mailbox.
“You know, it’s not just that we graduated from UND – that gave us a great start in life and our careers – but I think her work there has had more of an impact on us,” said Gerrad.
In 2013, Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer. She battled her way through, all the while completing her Doctor of Philosophy in Higher Education. She recovered but was diagnosed with biliary tract cancer in May 2018. After a year-long battle, she passed away in July of 2019.
“When she was sick the second time, we knew that we should try to do something so she could have a little bit of a lasting effect on the University,” explained Gerrad.
With the help of the UND Alumni Association & Foundation and Cassie Gerhardt, a good friend of Lisa’s and Associate Dean of Students, Gerrad initiated the Lisa Burger Memorial Fund to support scholarships for members of the Alpha Chi Omega house.
“Once Lisa agreed to it, I didn’t have to do much. They took the reins, so to speak,” Gerrad recalled. “Once we got the ball rolling, a lot of people who knew her were willing to donate money.”
Lisa was a mother to Noah, age 16 and a junior at Red River High School, and Isaac, age 20. Gerrad has kept the hearth burning “without an instruction manual,” as he says. But he is trying, mainly just getting through the day-to-day and the “year of firsts” as a family without Lisa.
Through his grief, Gerrad has been intentional to carry on her attributes: “This whole thing changes you as a person. I try to be more like her, taking more interest in others and remembering certain aspects about them, like birthdays – things I didn’t really think about before. But I don’t think that even if I lived to be twice as old as I am now that I could impact as many people as she did.”
At her prayer vigil and funeral, a reception lined was formed for the over 800 people who came to pay their respects. Gerrad found himself being their comforter, giving hugs and assurance: “I made a joke to Cassie that I never had to be that nice to so many people at one time in my whole life. Cassie said that Lisa would have been proud of me. So that’s good.”
On a future plaque to be placed next to Lisa’s tree will contain the words from a card she once received, “Thank you for being you.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” said Gerrad. “I would like to ask everyone who knew her to take the thing they appreciated most about her – whether it be her smile, a wave, a hug, a note – and incorporate that into their own lives with the hopes of making others feel as good as she made them feel. If we do that then maybe, just maybe, she will never really be gone.”
By Jenn Lukens, UND Alumni Association & Foundation