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Herbert Burtis

Herbert Burtis and John Ferris met in college, in 1948. Herb was 18, John was 22. They legally married in Massachusetts in 2004, after what they called their “55-year engagement.” When John died in August 2008, they had been together for 60 years.

Now 82, Herb is learning how to live a life without John. He says it’s the hardest thing he’s ever had to do—harder than living apart from John for 21 years when they had jobs in different states; harder than watching John’s health deteriorate from Parkinson’s disease for 16 years; harder, even, than caring for him in their home during the final years of John’s life.

But the federal government has pulled away the Social Security safety net John paid into all the years he was working, and that Herb still pays into through his adjunct work as a voice teacher at Smith College.

“Just as I struggled to cope with John’s loss, I never thought I would have to fight the federal government for the legal and financial protections that I need, and that other surviving spouses can count on,” says Herb.

Herb and John met in college in Michigan, where John returned after being stationed at Ft. Riley, Kansas, at the end of World War II. Studying with the same organ teacher, they connected through their love of music. After ten years together in Michigan and New York City, their music careers took them to different states. John was appointed University Organist and Choirmaster at Harvard, where he created the first mixed choir of women and men in the history of Harvard’s Memorial Church—to that point only men had sung in the church. Herb took a job as the choirmaster and organist at a church in Red Bank, New Jersey and had an international career as a concert artist. In 1961 Herb and John bought and restored a 1780 farmhouse in Sandisfield, in western Massachusetts, making it easier to spend time together each week, on holidays and school vacations.

In 1979 Herb moved to Arlington, Mass., to be with John permanently where he taught voice at Harvard for ten years. He was also Adjunct Professor of Voice at Smith College for two years.

Before he retired from Harvard in 1990, John noticed that he was having trouble playing music—his hands no longer worked as well as they always had. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1992, and for the next 16 years his health deteriorated. In 2005, he spent six months in a nursing home after a hospital misdiagnosis. In the spring of 2006 Herb brought John home to care for him, but by then he had to rely on a walker and assistance to get around. Eventually, he needed a wheelchair and 24-hour care.

Herb, who still lives in their Sandisfield home, is now fighting the federal government for the Social Security protections that other widowed spouses can rightly count on in their senior years.

“The extra $700 every month from John’s Social Security would cover my gap health insurance—what I get above and beyond Medicare,” says Herb. “My medications alone are $700 each month. It would make a big difference.”

Read a profile about Herbert Burtis in the Berkshire Eagle