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Fort Coffee Mayor Overcomes Obstacles

Monday, May 31, 2004
Marcus Blair
Times Record

This community may have a bad reputation, but Denay Burris is ready to overcome any odds to save it from methamphetamine dealers.

Burris said she was an agent for the Internal Revenue Service and lived in Atlanta in the mid-1990s, striving for a $100,000 yearly salary. With a master’s degree in public administration and a government career, she seemed to be on the way to her dreams.

Then her eyesight began to dim, her hearing worsened, and her memory dulled. Her supervisors urged her to write memos to herself but she lost the memos, Burris said.

She learned she has multiple sclerosis, a disease that scars the brain and can affect all functions of the nervous system. The illness forced her to step out of her high-stress lifestyle and move back to Fort Coffee, the rural LeFlore County community where she was raised.

Burris said she “just sat around the house” for nearly two years in a depression before realizing her health deteriorated when she did nothing.

“People get sick and they give up. Next thing you know, they’re bed-bound,” Burris said while sitting on her front porch, styling her cousin’s hair. “Everybody gets dealt their hand, and I’m dealing with my hand.”

Her law enforcement background spurred her to action, she said.

Fort Coffee was not the simple, quiet area of her childhood memories. Methamphetamine makers had invaded the community, and a constant flow of traffic came down the streets, the cars and pickups bearing license plates from other states. In years past, she knew almost everyone who drove past her home, but Fort Coffee had became packed with strangers, she said.

That year, Fort Coffee residents took a step in their fight to reclaim the community by becoming an incorporated town. Though Fort Coffee was established as an Indian Territory outpost before Oklahoma statehood, it would finally have a municipal government on Aug. 25, 1998, when 89 citizens voted to incorporate and 29 voted against it, according to records provided by the LeFlore County clerk.

Burris saw an opportunity to help the newly formed town use its incorporated status to grow and change. She started going to town meetings and in two years, she was elected to the council.

Going to work and being active helped fight the effects of her illness, she said. Burris also became a bus driver for Spiro Schools for extra income and activity in the mornings and afternoons.

A year ago, she was elected mayor. Her first goal is to change Fort Coffee’s reputation.

The town is known as a haven of drug users and criminals, but that image has been projected by law enforcement, Burris said. Though Fort Coffee has well-defined town limits, police refer to a large surrounding area as Fort Coffee even though it is outside the municipal jurisdiction.

“Every bad thing that happens, Fort Coffee is getting pinned for it. Every time someone says they’re not from Spiro, the police want to say they’re from Fort Coffee, but they’re not in the town boundaries,” Burris said.

“It’s not like we’re a bunch of people out here who don’t care,” she said.

Burris said she urges Fort Coffee residents to take care of “their own space.” If drugs are allowed in the homes of citizens, they have no reason to complain about the crime rate, she said. If each person fights the problem by starting at home, drugs can be eliminated from Fort Coffee, she believes.

The town council recently asked the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and other law enforcement to step up their rounds through Fort Coffee, but the request was counteracted by a handful of distrustful residents who phoned police and complained they were being watched by officers.

That mentality has to end if the town wants to make progress, Burris said.

“I moved here for a country environment,” Burris said. “If I wanted to be surrounded by drugs, I would have stayed in the city.”

The bad image makes it difficult to attract businesses to Fort Coffee, so the town has a tiny budget largely made up of taxes from propane and other rural services. The town must rely on volunteer work for any improvements its receives.

Despite the uphill battle, Burris believes Fort Coffee is ready to clean up its image and make progress.

The city of Hartshorne recently donated tornado sirens to the town, but Fort Coffee doesn’t have enough money to put them on poles, Burris said. It will take donations and volunteers to get the job done.

Last year, Burris requested and received the aid of a prison work crew to clean up the town park. Dozens of Fort Coffee residents provided food for the workers at a moment’s notice.

The Spiro East Water Association is partnering with Fort Coffee to study the feasibility of running six-inch water lines to the community. The larger lines are needed to add more fire hydrants to the town’s seven-hydrant system.

Police protection is a top priority, Burris said. The town is looking for a benefactor who will donate the first-year salary of a part-time police officer. Fines would take care of the salary in years to come, she said.

In early May, Burris attended the National Black Mayors Conference in Philadelphia. She was elected third vice president of the national organization but thinks it is more important that she made contacts with other black mayors. At least one promised to bring Fort Coffee an old fire truck that can be used by the town’s volunteer fire department, Burris said.

Carolyn Triplett, town council member, said Burris works hard and investigates the issues before taking a stance.

“She’s done a lot to improve the community — a lot of legwork,” Triplett said. “We’re really moving along because of her. She acts quickly and knows how to delegate her authority.”

J.L. Williams, superintendent of Spiro Schools, said Burris is a good employee but also contributes to the futures of students. For 15 years, Burris has funded the yearly $500 African-American Excellence Award for students.

“She’s a fine person,” Williams said. “She is one of two people who fund individual scholarships in our town. Any amount is more than what students had.”

Copyright © 2004, Times Record