A wise person once said “be careful what you know…you might have to teach it one day.” For James Burke, 32 years of his life were spent living out this sentiment. Social studies teacher, department chairperson and ultimately vice principal of Liberty High School, Burke served his students with a devotion that those who teach understand well.
His career at Liberty began in 1953, when the high school was still on Main Street. He moved to Liberty from Dunmore, PA to take a job as a social studies teacher. After settling in, his new bride Margaret followed, also taking a job in Sullivan County as a teacher. Together, the couple raised six children in Liberty, four of whom still live in Sullivan County. His granddaughter Meghan is graduating with the class of 2011, making a family legacy that spans six decades.
Described as a fair and compassionate teacher, Mr. Burke took a keen interest in his students and encouraged them to work to the best of their abilities and to find their passion – be it sports, music or academics. His compassion extended beyond the classroom as well. In the long Sullivan County winters, it was unsettling to him that some students were without hats and gloves. Mr. Burke collected money from friends, business associates and others to set up an account at Sullivan’s Department Store. Those who were without hats and glove were sent to Sullivan’s to get what they needed to say warm.
In retirement Mr. Burke taught driver training through Sullivan County BOCES. He noticed, however that some students did not have the ability to read the written test and therefore would never be able to pass their driving exam. To help those students, he went to Albany and fought to have provisions put in place for students to access to a test reader – someone who would be able to read the questions to them.
Burke’s commitment to the community of Liberty was perceptible to all who knew him, and he served as a member of the Liberty Zoning Board of Appeals and Chairman of the Liberty Democratic Committee.
In a poem that was given to him by a student, they write “Love to me is someone who understands and cares and is there when you are down and out of luck – but most of all, love to me is someone who treats you and your family like people not like a piece of junk.” It was Mr. Burke’s compassionate, strong-willed character that made him unforgettable to both students and colleagues alike.