Philanthropist Joe Burke buried Friday
It is with sadness we report that Joe Burke, 89, Orange Philanthropist, passed away Tuesday, Jan. 28, around 8:20 p.m. in route to Galveston after having a massive stroke.
Services are scheduled to be held Friday, Feb. 1, at 2p.m.
Burke was out and about exactly one week ago, when he attended the Bridge City Chamber Banquet that honored long time friend, and publisher, Roy Dunn as Citizen of the Year. Dunn felt very privileged to have Burke there, as he rarely went out at night at his age.
"It saddens my heart. I have lost a really good friend,” said Dunn. "He was a fine man."
They had a long conversation last night and had made plans to have a large gathering of all their friends next week.
Burke didn’t like the spotlight and attempted to give many of his donations anonymously.
He had been a successful businessman and an adventurer. He knew he couldn’t take his money with him, so recently, he decided to give money for the upkeep of the historic Hollywood Cemetery.
“I made a little money and now I’m giving you some of it,” he said to members of the cemetery association last month.
Burke grew up in Orange at Cherry and Fourth streets. “My daddy wanted me to be born here and my mother wanted me to be born in San Antonio,” he said. His mother had her wish and he was born in San Antonio.
He didn’t graduate from high school and he proudly said he was expelled. And he didn’t care who knew it. When alumni of Orange and Stark high schools built a memorial wall, Burke paid for a large stone with the engraving “Joe Burke expelled.”
Instead of going to school “I went on a hitch-hiking trip around the country,” Burke said. When he got back to town, the superintendent wanted to give him the old-fashioned whippings. Burke threatened to whip him back and ended his school career.
“I was a bad kid,” he said.
The hitch-hiking trip wasn’t his only adventure. “I’ve had lunch with the governor, I’ve had lunch on the side of the road, and I’ve had lunch in jail,” he said.
In 1989, when he was 67, Burke saw some racing walkers and thought he could do the swinging gait better than the racers. He tried it one day and timed himself, then discovered his time could beat the ones on the race circuit. So he joined the circuit and won the national championship. He also started running and had times to make him in the top 15 nationally.
When he was young, Burke worked for timber heir Lutcher Stark. He still recalls the time Stark apologized to him in front of the Bengal Guards girls drum and bugle corps, which Stark sponsored. And Stark wasn’t known for apologizing.
Stark was giving a demonstration in front of the Bengal Guards and asked Burke to hold something for him. The way he held it wasn’t right and Stark hollered at him.. Stark criticized the second way he held the object, so Burke dropped it and walked off.
He told the millionaire that apparently nothing he did was right and he was leaving. Stark apologized.
“That’s when the Starks weren’t worth but about $17 million,” Burke quipped.
He also became friends through the years with Nelda Stark, Lutcher’s widow.
“I’ve got nothing but good to say about (Lutcher) and Nelda, too,” Burke said.
Burke served in the U.S. Army during World War II and was stationed for a while at Fort Sam Houston, but didn’t participate in overseas action.
When he was young, he began buying houses and property. “I’d buy and sell, buy and sell,” he said.
One of his earliest ventures was in the jukebox business and he owned most of the ones in Orange in the days when records were 78 rpm. “Jolie Blonde” was the favorite in Orange, he said. One club wore the record out in one night.
He also owned a small hotel on John Street in the 1940s. Gamblers would rent the rooms out for the night and play cards. They also dropped money in the coin-operated air-conditioners in the rooms.
“I don’t know what they were doing, but they’d put those quarters in the air-conditioner,” Burke said.
He said he donated to Hollywood Cemetery “because all my friends are here.” He hopes others in the community will be spurred to give to the new trust fund established to maintain the cemetery.
A few years ago, Burke donated money to the historic Evergreen Cemetery for upkeep.
“I don’t have a lot of money, but I’m only going to live another two or three years,” he said. “Why do I need to sit on it?”