Gamma Phi Circus has a proud 90-year tradition of teaching students the importance of teamwork and putting on stunning live shows for the Bloomington-Normal community. Don Burda ‘58, M.S. ’60, was a part of Gamma Phi when it was a little younger and slightly less established, but still a place where lifelong lessons about hard work and friendship were learned.
Burda originally attended the University of Illinois at Chicago. He transferred to Illinois State University when he realized he wanted an educational experience with a more personal touch.
“One of our friends had a brother that went to Illinois State,” he said. “I went down there with some of my friends and I liked it because it was a little bit smaller, more intimate. At Illinois State we had a smaller campus with great instructors. I felt like I got to know everyone there.”
Initially, Burda didn’t know what to get involved in at Illinois State. That all changed once he discovered Gamma Phi. He had no formal training in circus or gymnastics, but he loved the possibilities Gamma Phi represented.
“Gamma Phi was neat because anyone could do it,” he said. “If you worked hard and put an act together, you got to be in the circus.”
Burda credits Gamma Phi coach Arley Gillett for helping him develop the skill set to delight audiences and the work ethic to achieve his life goals.
“I thought it was really nice that you could try something you’ve never done before, and with the right coaching, you could succeed,” Burda said. “That is something that has stuck with me my entire life.”
Burda completed his undergraduate education in 1958 and was drafted into the military. He said the training was difficult, but friends from his alma mater made the transition easier.
“I got a really nice letter from Gamma Phi; all of the performers and coaches signed it,” Burda said. “It was my motivation to get through basic training.”
Burda returned to Illinois State after serving in the reserves for six months to attend graduate school and participate in Gamma Phi. After graduation, Burda worked as a physical education teacher at Arbor View Elementary School in Glen Ellyn. He retired after teaching for 35 years and now owns Homestead Orchard in Woodstock.
“I do almost all of the work myself,” he said. “There is always something to be done in the orchard. It keeps me in shape and gives me something to do.”
Burda has also kept in contact with fellow circus performer Dr. Ronald Tinsley ’58. Tinsley was part of a three-man balancing act pictured with this story. Tinsley is the performer on the top, Bob Loveridge ‘57 is the man in the middle, and Burda is the one keeping everyone stable on the bottom.
Tinsley works as a doctor in remote Ester, Alaska. Tinsley and Burda can only speak when Tinsley visits a nearby town with cell phone coverage. Even with these difficulties, the two make a point to connect and reminisce on their days as students at Illinois State whenever possible.
“We mostly talk about circus,” Burda said. “We daydream about wishing we had more photos and videos of the shows available to us.”
Burda still attends the Gamma Phi show during Sibling Weekend every April. Today’s students always impress him, decades after his time in the circus.
“It gets better every year,” he said. “The acts are more athletic, more professional. It really has come a long way.”