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Donna Burton, a luncheonette owner and avid traveler, dies

Donna Marie Burton, an Italian-born mother of two boys, enjoyed gardening, spending winters in Florida and playing cards with a group of women affectionately called “The Golden Girls.”
Donna Marie Burton, an Italian-born mother of two boys, enjoyed gardening, spending winters in Florida and playing cards with a group of women affectionately called “The Golden Girls.”

Decades after moving out of her hometown of Gorizia, Italy, Donna Maria Burton returned as often as she could to the town located at the foot of the Julian Alps, bordering what is now Slovenia, making the trip 10 to 12 times before tiring of the hourslong flights.

Her appearances were cause for celebration.

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“I think the people in town over there knew her very well when she’d come back,” said her son, Jim DeFrancesco. “It would almost make the local news at times, and I think that was because of what they had to endure during the war. So they knew her very well.”

Mrs. Burton, a single mother of two who owned a sub shop on Edmondson Avenue and enjoyed traveling, died Aug. 12 at the Gilchrist Center in Towson due to the coronavirus. She had celebrated her 98th birthday in June.

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The former Donna Birsa was the oldest of three children born to Francis and Maria Birsa, who owned a farm in what was Yugoslavia. Ms. Birsa worked at a restaurant owned by her grandparents in Piazza Duomo in Gorizia, grew up speaking Italian and Slavic, and later learned English.

At the height of World War II, Francis Birsa was a member of an underground rebel group seeking to protect Yugoslavia from Nazi Germany. But he was arrested and deported to Dachau in 1943 and died of an illness shortly after being liberated by Allied forces at the end of the war.

Like her father, Ms. Birsa joined the same resistance front. According to her son, she and a female co-worker from her grandparents’ restaurant were arrested by the authorities and jailed for 30 days. During that time, she could hear her father’s cries for her from a nearby cell before he was transported to Dachau.

After 30 days, Ms. Birsa and her friend were brought before a pair of police officials.

“They looked at her, and she was about 95 pounds, and they said, ‘She’s not strong enough to lift anything, even a bucket.’ So they let her go,” Mr. DeFrancesco said from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “But the other girl she was with, they took her and never saw her again. So it was a terrible time during the war.”

Near the end of the war, Ms. Birsa met James DeFrancesco, a U.S. Army staff sergeant stationed at Castello di Gorizia, which is close to Piazza Duomo. The pair fell in love, and after Mr. DeFrancesco returned to the United States, he came back to Gorizia, married Ms. Birsa in 1947, and brought his bride to his hometown of Philadelphia.

But after giving birth to Jim DeFrancesco in 1948 and Kenneth DeFrancesco in 1956 and moving to Baltimore in 1951, Mrs. DeFrancesco and her husband — who died in 2018 — divorced in 1960. Mrs. DeFrancesco sold cosmetics and worked behind the sandwich counter at a pharmacy in Arbutus and picked up a second job going door-to-door filling out surveys for businesses to support her sons.

Although money was tight, Mrs. DeFrancesco refused to let herself or her boys feel sorry for themselves.

“There was one Thanksgiving [when he was 12], a church brought a collection of food to us,” Mr. DeFrancesco said. “My mother answered the door and actually said to them kindly, ‘Thank you for thinking of us, but please give the food to somebody else to whoever needs it.’ She was raising my brother and me as a single parent, and she once told me years later, ‘I was always afraid that somebody will take you boys away from me. So I didn’t want to share our information with anybody.’ She was being very protective, and that’s the way she was. She used to say, ‘Our problems are our problems, and we’ll deal with them.’”

About a year later in 1961, Mrs. DeFrancesco purchased the Village Luncheonette on Edmondson and ran it until 1974 when she sold it. In 1967, she married Bill Burton, an auto body shop manager, in Baltimore, and after selling the sub shop, she worked part time as a host at a cafeteria inside the Montgomery Ward department store in Catonsville.

To assist his mother, Jim DeFrancesco began working at the age of 12 as a seventh grader busing dishes at a restaurant in Catonsville. Earning $1 per hour for 19 hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, he kept $2 for himself and gave the rest to his mother, who used it to pay for their monthly mortgage of $72.

“I learned early on from her that to get a helping hand is one thing, but to never take a handout,” he said. “No matter how difficult things were, she always had the perseverance to find a way to manage through it.”

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After Mr. Burton died of a heart attack in the early 1980s, Mrs. Burton moved into an apartment complex in Catonsville. Next door was Vernona Hann, and the two bonded over food, day trips and Shanghai rummy card games and the Rummikub board game.

“That was our big excitement every Friday night,” Mrs. Hann said of their weekly get-togethers with a group of women that Mrs. Burton’s family affectionately called “The Golden Girls.” “We did so many things together. We went to Florida together to see her kids. … Her family always included me in some of the things we did together. That was very nice. I got to know her kids.”

Mrs. Hann described Mrs. Burton as “very easy to like.”

“I think it was because she was from a different country, and she would tell me all of the things that happened in Italy,” Mrs. Hann said. “We just had a lot of fun. … No matter what you said you’d like to do, she wanted to do it, too. She liked to be with friends and just enjoyed all of our little things together.”

In addition to playing cards, Mrs. Burton loved to garden and travel. She took cruises with friends and spent winters in Fort Lauderdale to be close to the ocean.

Mrs. Burton was cremated, and the funeral will be private.

In addition to her son, Mrs. Burton is survived by another son, Kenneth DeFrancesco of Fort Lauderdale; , one sister, Lydia Thiel of Cockeysville; one brother, Frank Birsa of Eldersburg; one cousin, Vanda Sever of Gorizia; three nephews; and five great-nieces and nephews.

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