Paula Burton takes her teaching out of the classroom so that she can teach the nation.
Burton’s father escaped from a German labor camp during WWII, only to find his welding school and business gone and his young family devastated by war. The displaced young family of four took their two suitcases and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the land of freedom. Burton remembers her family coming to America poor, but “rich with gratitude” for their new home. “My parents wept whenever they heard the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’” Burton said.
Burton’s American dream was to be a public school teacher, which became a reality after she won a four-year scholarship and received a BS in elementary education from BYU’s McKay School of Education. Since then Burton has taught all grade levels and also ESL and special education classes. However, she is best known for her work promoting patriotism as “The Flag Lady” of Orange County.
“As a public school teacher, I found myself bringing my background of devotion to America into the classroom, and that is what triggered my dismay over my students’ lack of patriotic fervor,” Burton said. “One day I wrote the word Indivisible on the board and asked for a definition. The response? ‘You can’t see it!’”
This experience started Burton s campaign to teach students to understand the words of the Pledge of Allegiance. “Our pledge is made up of simple 31 words that capture both the character of the American people and the principles upon which our nation was founded,” she explained.
Burton’s effort to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Pledge of Allegiance is what led her to create Celebration USA (CUSA), a non-profit educational organization that encourages young people to honor the principles of democracy, good citizenship, and patriotism. The organization is very successful because Burton has kept her mission in mind. “I must admit I simply ran on enthusiasm, optimism, and a large dose of naiveté in those early days. I jumped into it with two feet and my entire soul, never having done anything comparable in my life,” Burton said. “But a national school celebration uniting our nation’s youth in a synchronized ‘Pledge Across America’ was my goal.”
Burton’s goal was accomplished that year when a cast of 1,000 students performed the pledge at Orange County’s Kelly Stadium. However, it was after 9/11 that her organization received national recognition when President Bush and Congress stood with 52 million students nationwide to pledge their allegiance at an event Burton organized. After this event, other programs followed, such as “Catch the Spirit!” singers, Constitution Day events, and a campaign for letters for veteran’s hospitals and for service personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Camp Pendleton as part of the National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans. CUSA’s success spread across the nation, and CUSA’s “Catch the Spirit!” singers have performed all over America, including the White House and Constitution Hall. Presidents Clinton and Bush have praised CUSA’s efforts. “Our success reflects the culmination of many volunteer hours and the generosity of numerous sponsors, writers, editors, and musicians,” Burton said. “I stand on the shoulders of many who have supported Celebration USA’s mission and have made my dream a reality.”
Burton’s dream of becoming a teacher extended into the reality of strengthening patriotism in America. She has established a nationally recognized and supported organization, earned several awards, and touched the lives of many Americans. Burton is grateful for the experiences this country has provided. “Over the years I’ve learned that success is a continual, infinite concept. Beyond each accomplishment, there’s another goal to strive for, but I pray it will be my legacy that I have translated the ideals of patriotism into action and deeds,” Burton said. “I know that I am blessed.”
Burton and her husband, Bruce, have four children. They live in Orange County, California, where Burton is continuing her work with CUSA.