Mentor/Mentee Spotlight: Burgess '80 & Hoffmann '50

Mentor & Mentee, Denise N. Burgess '80 & Martin R. Hoffmann '50

(Excerpted from Middlesex Annual Report 2011-2012)

It was thirty-something years ago that Denise Burgess (’80) and Marty Hoffmann (’50) first met on the Middlesex campus. They were introduced by Hoffmann’s daughter Heidi (’80), who went on to become one of Burgess’s closest friends in Concord and then her roommate when the two of them, also following in Hoffmann’s footsteps, went on to Princeton. “Oh—she was just a fabulous person,” Hoffmann remembers now, looking at Burgess admiringly as she sits on the couch of the Washington. D.C. home he shares with his wife Muggy. “Outgoing, unselfish, full of energy and ideas and flash in the best sense of the word.” After that first encounter, he remembers, “I don’t think we every went to Middlesex and just snuck Heidi off to dinner. Denise was part of the family.”

It was the beginning, as they say, of a beautiful friendship: “I was fifteen, and I came from a very difficult background,” Burgess says matter-of-factly, “a very dysfunctional family, and poverty. I remember looking at the Hoffmanns and thinking ‘Wouldn’t I like to be part of that happy little group over there? And sure enough, they took me in.” It wasn’t long, in fact, before Burgess’s relationship with the Hoffmans existed, as she puts it now, “alongside” her relationship with Heidi. “Heidi and Denise may have been Heidi and Denise still at Princeton,” Hoffman agrees, “but very soon after that Denise was on her own in our consciousness, both in our concern for and care for her.”

It came as a great delight to him when Burgess’s interests in college turned to Washington and politics. Hoffmann, who had been General Counsel at the Department of Defense and for the Atomic Energy Commission before becoming Secretary of the Army under Gerald Ford, had by then opened a law firm. He suggested a summer internship there to Burgess, and a whole new world opened before her. “We always presume that people know [to do] things like that,” she says. “But sometimes you have to have that person say to you: here’s the path.”

The experience was, by all accounts, a success. “She was a huge addition to the office just in spirit and in terms of becoming a cohesive part of the team,” says Hoffman.  “She was exceptional at so many aspects of it, it was exciting to see.” It was Burgess’s first exposure to a professional work environment, but it was also a chance to learn something about how to be in the world: “Marty has taught me many life lessons, and the one I associate with those days was about being who you are,” she says now. “You be who you are and have confidence and self-esteem. I didn’t grow up with any self-esteem; I had to develop it. And it started that summer.”

Burgess went on to a career in the Foreign Service with postings in Mexico City and Bombay among other places. She also went back to work for Hoffmann at the Pentagon in 2006. All along, she’s known she could rely on the steady support of both Hoffmanns, who always knew how and when to help but never interfered. “People can give you a job,” she explains, “but it’s about much more than that. Marty and Muggy have molded me. I would not be the person I am today if they had not guided me to be that person. That’s the difference between someone who gives you a job and your mentor.”

Assenting while also skillfully deflecting attention from himself, Hoffmann adds, “I remember the mentors I’ve had. You get a feeling about the best way to be helpful, and the best way to be helpful is be there.”

And though he’s nearing eighty, Hoffmann is clearly not planning on going anywhere soon. Just recently, in fact, Burgess found herself at the Hoffmanns’ dining room table with a yellow legal pad, getting some advice on whether or not she should try to re-launch her recession-battered strategic consulting business (which she ultimately did). “Remember when we sat in there?” she says to Hoffman, pointing to the room next to us. “I didn’t feel sure about the direction I was heading in,” she recalls. “So I said ‘Sounds like a Marty Hoffmann problem to me!’”

© 2011 Middlesex School