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Marjorie Burgess

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Hackensack resident, 83, was prison guard, poet

Marjorie Burgess of Hackensack, whose 31 years as a prison guard provided fodder for her poetry, died Sunday at the Bristol Manor Nursing Home in Rochelle Park. She was 83.

There is so much sin and corruption here, Mrs. Burgess, who retired in 1990 as a captain with the New York State Department of Corrections, wrote in her first published volume of poetry, titled "Walking on the Road of Life."

Who stole away their joy and laughter?

Who took away their innocence and dreams?

Leaving behind children like solid steel beams.

"ThHere" was the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County, where Mrs. Burgess spent much of her career.

Moved by her grim surroundings and the plight of those under her watch, Mrs. Burgess scribbled verse and kept it locked in a drawer. In 1997, seven years after her retirement, she self-published her first volume of poetry with the help of Doc Russell, founder of the Kuumba cq Community Activity Program. Mrs. Burgess met Russell at Hackensack's Martin Luther King Jr. Senior Center.

Mrs. Burgess' verse reflected her empathy for the inmates. "They're all human beings," she said a 1997 interview with The Record. "Sometimes, the difference between their circumstances and someone who is not in prison is just a matter of chance."

Her good friend Juanita Taylor cq said Thursday that Mrs. Burgess "never looked down on anyone."

Vantage Press published Mrs. Burgess' second volume, "Life! It's More Than a Notion" in 2000. One poem from that book was a paean to her mother, Laura Ford Harrison.

My mother was a woman so gentle, caring and kind,

The mother of ten children and she gave love that binds.

I was her youngest girl and her sixth child,

My thousand and one questions must have driven her wild.

The former Marjorie Harrison was born in North Carolina and graduated in 1947 from Eastern District High School in Brooklyn. She went to work as a corrections officer in 1959 after a stint as a Chock Full O' Nuts restaurant counter girl. Pursuing an education while juggling work at the prison and raising two sons, she earned associate's and bachelor's degrees from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

In retirement, Mrs. Burgess received commendations for volunteerism. She was an intergenerational mentor to fourth- and fifth-graders in the non-profit Martin Luther King Jr. Senior Center's after-school program and also was a Bergen County senior citizen advocate.

In 2002, Mrs. Burgess received an African-American Leadership in Bergen County Award from Bergen Community College.

Victoria Taylor cq, executive director of the senior center, said Mrs. Burgess spoke often about having been a prison guard.

"But you wouldn't know she'd ever worked in that system because of her quiet demeanor and compassionate, caring attitude," Victoria Taylor said. "The kids responded to her."

Mrs. Burgess is survived by her sons, Terence Dixon of St. Louis and Michael Dixon of Denver; her sister, Mary Robinson of Philadelphia,, and two grandchildren.

The funeral is today at 4 p.m. at Hackensack's Mount Olive Baptist Church, where Mrs. Burgess was a parishioner. Interment will be in George Washington Memorial Park, Paramus. Arrangements are by Earl I. Jones Funeral Home, Hackensack.

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