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Remembering John Burke

This talk was given by John Burke in August 2004 at the Old Governor's Mansion in Bismarck

Good Afternoon, my name is John Burke. I'm very pleased to be here today, when we've come together to remember Governor John Burke. I've been asked, as a member of the family and, perhaps, as John Burke's namesake, to make a few brief remarks. My two sisters, Mary Anderson of Minneapolis, and Liz Lucas of Bismarck, and I are the only grandchildren of John Burke. Unfortunately, he passed away before any of us was born, and consequently, we cannot provide any first-hand information about him.

Mrs. Mary Burke Schaaf of Minnesota, John Burke's niece who met him once when she was about 10 years old, is with us today, but she recalls very little about him other than that he was a very tall, imposing man. However, we have heard some stories throughout the years and we have done some research in the family papers, so I have a few thoughts and stories about John Burke that I hope you will find interesting, keeping in mind that these are to be BRIEF remarks.

Before going on, I would like to recognize and thank my nephew, John Burke's great-grandson, Greg Lucas, for creating the wonderful display of John and Mary Burke memorabilia situated on the East side of the mansion. Greg's talents as an artist and artistic designer make this display truly special.

As I thought about this talk, the question that went through my mind repeatedly was, "who was John Burke?"

His basic biographical data, or much of it, is well known. You can read that information in any number of places, including my old eighth grade Civics text, and I didn't want to simply go over that history again.

Briefly, however, I will remind you that he was the son of Irish immigrant parents, raised on a farm in Iowa and used to hard work, largely self-educated, became a lawyer, came to North Dakota in 1888 and for a brief time worked in the fields, taught school, and published a newspaper.

He became a successful trial attorney, and went on to a long and distinguished career in public service. Late in his life, when most men would be planning their retirement, he suffered a major financial setback, made a comeback--briefly as an attorney and then as a North Dakota Supreme Court justice--working until his death at the age of 78.

But who was John Burke really? What was there that differentiated him from the rest of us and led to a life of distinction that culminated in the placement of statues of him in the United States and North Dakota capitol buildings? (You may be interested to know that, in a way, these are actually statues of our father, Thomas Burke, who closely resembled his father and consequently served as Arvid Fairbank's model for the statue.)

Gov. John Burke meets with a delegation from Sioux County

Gov. John Burke meets with a delegation from Sioux County

Probably it was a combination of what I will call his earnestness, combined with his wit and his now-famous personal integrity, plus the very important fact that he had some kind of innate ability to immediately impress others with the fact that he possessed those qualities. People were drawn to him and seemed immediately to like and admire him. His older brother, Thomas, wrote of his boyhood:

. . . he was conspicuous at all our winter entertainments--"Spelling Schools" and "Literary Societies"--meeting in the old schoolhouse on a corner of our father's farm. . . . When I say that John was conspicuous on such occasions, I do not mean that he excelled in either spelling or literary performance; but the willingness and zest with which he would enter a contest of either spelling or debating, and his whimsical smile and flashing eyes, accompanied by some quaintly humorous remark, whensoever he went down in defeat, generally gave him the best of it, anyway in the line of applause. It was because he was so earnest and admiringly singular that he stood out in the minds and affections of the entire community.

And in 1938, a mister C. J. Murphy said:

I well remember our first meeting. It was one evening on the streets of Rolla, perhaps as much as forty years ago. I was introduced to him by his brother-in-law, Mr. Keane. Every time I have seen or thought of Judge Burke since, a picture has flashed before my eye of how he looked upon that occasion. A tall, dark, slender, youngish-looking man, with a slight stoop, and one of the friendliest smiles I have ever seen. He was carrying a baby on one arm and his wife had hold of the other. He was already a famous lawyer and I was somewhat embarrassed, but my trouble was quickly dissipated under the influence of the genial, cordial atmosphere created by my newfound friend.

The most interesting thing I found about John Burke is that my research revealed virtually no negative criticism of him as a man. Obviously I have read but a small percentage of what was written about him during his life, but still the lack of criticism is profound. His political opponents were critical of his political views, and of his platforms, and often of his political actions, but I found nothing but laudatory statements about the man himself--even from politicians well known for their outspoken views.

For instance, William Langer, famous for his colorful characterizations of his political opponents, said on the occasion of the memorial service for John Burke in the North Dakota Supreme Court,

. . . as long as John Burke was in public life, I think it was unanimously agreed there never was any doubt as to who was the first citizen within the boundaries of the state of North Dakota, and that wherever he went the rank and file of the people said: 'There goes the first citizen of North Dakota,' and that was true whether he held public office, or whether he didn't. . . .

Well of course, I thought, even his opponents would speak well of him at his memorial service, so I looked backward in time to see what I could find said about him earlier in his life.

In 1896, John Burke was the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, an election that he ultimately lost, by 4,161 votes, to a man named M. N. Johnson. At that time, John Burke's political career had encompassed one term in the North Dakota House of Representatives and two terms in the North Dakota Senate.

The Democratic Plaindealer of Grand Forks published a statement that reveals that it was probably the man himself, rather than his political record, that was his greatest political asset:

Hon. John Burke, of Rolette County, is one of the most popular men in the state. He was elected to the legislature in 1890 and soon won a place in the front rank of that body. . . . He is an effective speaker, and a man of irreproachable character. We doubt whether there is a man in the public life in North Dakota who so universally enjoys the respect and confidence of everybody, regardless of politics.

But the Plaindealer was a political supporter. It is far more interesting--and in today's political climate almost unbelievable--to hear what the opposition had to say. Referring to John Burke's nomination, the Cando Herald, a Republican newspaper, said:

In nominating Hon. John Burke for Congress, the fusionists make a good hit, and one which cannot help making their ticket a few thousands stronger, as Mr. Burke is so well known throughout the state and respected for his ability and honesty. He is a born statesman, and the only fault we find with "Honest John" is his political views, but they are a mere triviality beside his qualifications as a man.

I think it bears comment that this was written about John Burke only ten years after he had received his degree in law in Iowa in 1886, and only eight years after he had arrived, penniless, in North Dakota.

I should also explain that the term "fusionists" describes a political alliance between the Democratic Party, which had about 25% representation in the state at that time, and the progressive movement in the state Republican Party. It was this key alliance, formed in opposition to the "McKenzie Machine" that supported John Burke and made possible his election and reelection as the first Democrat governor in an overwhelmingly Republican state.

Gov. Burke visits Ambrose, ND

Gov. Burke visits Ambrose, ND

A University of North Dakota student named Charles Glaab, writing in a master's thesis in 1952, said:

To comment on Burke's personality and character is difficult. Burke had very few enemies, and even during bitter political campaigns he was seldom attacked very vigorously by his opposition. People who knew him, even those who opposed him politically, remember him with great admiration and respect, and he seems to have been a man who inspired deep feeling in people he met even casually, or those he spoke to from the platform. In the eyes of many, he seems to have become the symbol of the best qualities of men in public office and life: uncompromising honesty, high convictions, and devotion to duty. If there were less commendable sides to his character, they were never revealed. The correspondence of his later years, which has been preserved. . . indicate a man who was deeply sympathetic toward people and their problems, and a man who never compromised with principles of conduct which he considered valid.

John Burke's older brother, Thomas, of Portland, Oregon, in a letter written shortly after John Burke's death, recounts attending a speech in Portland by William Jennings Bryan and finding himself seated next to an old gentleman who had recently moved from North Dakota to Oregon:

'Mr. Corliss,' I asked, after we had struck up an acquaintance, 'do you happen to know John Burke, who appears to be cutting some figure in the state you abandoned?'

He started instantly. 'My God, man, he's the governor! Everybody knows him!' And so we talked of nothing else!

'Your brother,' said Judge Corliss, 'was the hardest man to try a case against, that I ever went up against, while we were both practicing in that state.'

Just how do you mean--and why do you say that?' I asked. 'You surprise me.'

'It's difficult to explain,' said the Judge, 'and the nearest I can come to explaining it is to say, that both the judges and the juries in all the courts of North Dakota will BELIEVE every damned word he says!'

In 1900, John Burke ran for district judge and was defeated by the Republican candidate. It appears that, after this election, he determined to remove himself from politics and devote himself entirely to his law practice, which had become very prosperous, with clients in virtually every part of the state.

So when he was called upon to run for governor in 1906, he apparently had no ambition to run for the office. He was willing to accept the nomination for the Supreme Court, but leading democrats and progressives wanted him for governor.

In the convention in Minot, on August 2, 1906, he was nominated unanimously on the first ballot. He later told the story that when his name was presented, he started to rise from his seat to decline, but that two friends sitting near him held him in his seat until after the balloting.

Ten years later he wrote:

I never asked for an office but once in my life. That was in 1906, when I told my friends in Minot that if they were bound to nominate me for something, to nominate me for judge of the Supreme Court, and they turned it down. I went out to Minot in self-defense, to prevent the convention nominating me for governor. I felt as though I could not afford to take the office, even if I was elected, for I had at that time as good a practice as any in the state.

In a statement to the press after being nominated, he objected to being compared to Lincoln and to the prefixing of "Honest" before his name.

"Everybody is supposed to be honest until he is proven to be otherwise," he said. "There has been only one Lincoln and there will probably never be another. I do not wish to be compared with him."

However, the nickname and the comparison were destined to follow John Burke the rest of his life and well beyond. Between his reputation for honesty and integrity and his personal appearance, the comparison seems inevitable. One description helps us see the man himself:

Over six feet tall, thin, angular, and slightly stooped, he could not be called handsome. His face was slightly scarred (from an accident when he fell into the fire as a baby), his features were rough-hewn, and his nose and ears large. Nor did he dress well, but his generally homely, gaunt appearance contributed to an impression of honesty and sincerity.

The statue of John Burke in the U.S. Capitol is dedicated

The statue of John Burke in the U.S. Capitol is dedicated

As a speaker, he could evidently convince people of the genuineness of his views by simple, straightforward presentation. He had an effective sense of humor, which he employed to advantage as a speaker. His friends remember that he was an excellent storyteller and always ready for a quick reply for a heckler.

John Burke liked to tell a story from his boyhood, when he was hired by a neighbor in Iowa, Chester Ferry, to harvest a late crop of corn. After a weekend of work, Ferry gave him fifty cents for his assistance, telling him that it was not much for the amount of work he had done, but that it was all he could afford.

However, Ferry told him that if he ever received any money with John's name on it, he would give it to him. Apparently this was a common remark to make at the time, but one which Ferry may have come to regret when John Burke became U.S. Treasurer in 1914 and all United States currency bore his name!

According to the story, John Burke good-humoredly reminded Ferry of his promise from many years before, but did not hold him to it.

John Burke's reputation for honesty and integrity was not confined to North Dakota. In 1924, The Atlanta, Georgia Constitution wrote:

In a state overwhelmingly Republican, John Burke, known to fame for his personal integrity in a test of grilling sacrifice, was elected to a place in the North Dakota supreme court--and Judge Burke a lifelong, uncompromising, old-school democrat.

For three terms he had served as governor, having been elected over Republican contestants, and in the Wilson administration he as United States treasurer and made a most excellent record. He resigned to enter the brokerage business in New York.

Being honest himself he made the mistake of believing everybody else honest. . . . When the crash came, he found himself caught in the whirlpool of financial troubles and suspicions, but he quickly demonstrated that he was guiltless of even a suspicion of wrongdoing, or even irregular. He turned over every dollar of his personal fortune to the firm's creditors and moved back home to Fargo, broken in fortune, but not in spirit.

And the Republicans as well as the Democrats of his home state combined in staging the comeback. He was chosen to the high office of justice of the highest court in the state by an overwhelming vote--a vote of confidence that must have made this veteran of more than forty years of public life prouder even than the day he took the oath of office for the first time as the state's chief executive. Does honesty pay? Always!

There is much more to be said about John Burke. For instance, his name was raised as a possible presidential candidate in 1913, and he was a very real contender for the vice-presidential nomination, having received nearly 400 votes on the first ballot at the convention in Baltimore before he withdrew his name from contention.

A statue of John Burke Stands in front of the North Dakota capitol building

A statue of John Burke Stands in front of the North Dakota capitol building

But I promised that these remarks would be brief, and I wouldn't want to be known as "Dishonest John Burke," so I'll close with excerpts from a summation written by Charles Glaab, whose UND Master's thesis I quoted earlier:

The high place John Burke holds in the hearts of many North Dakotans is well-deserved. . . . the observations that can be drawn about him from the period he served as governor fit his entire career as a public servant. He represented the best qualities of men who hold office, uncompromising honesty, devotion to duty, and a belief in the integrity of the democratic processes of government. . . . He was unswerving in the belief that the duties of a public office should be discharged to the best of a man's capabilities in the interest of the whole people.

In this respect his record as governor is hard to equal. He was elected at a time when the prestige of the office had declined to a very low level in North Dakota, for the machine officials who had preceded him had seemed to devote most of their time and efforts to advancing the demands of the state's railroads. Burke changed the picture completely. Although he was not always successful in his actions, he consistently followed the policies which he believed would ensure government representative of the best interests of the entire state.

With these qualities, Burke combined great political ability. Throughout the time he was in office, the Democratic Party was solidly united behind him. . . . Moreover, through a general policy of non-partisan appointments and high standards in his conduct of his office, he was able to retain the confidence of the Republican progressive leaders. . . .

Burke's three administrations left a solid record of achievement: a legislative program of reform the equal of that of any other state. . . . That he was one of the best governors the state has ever had cannot really be disputed.

Burke's chief historical significance lies in his role in the North Dakota Progressive Movement. During 1906-1912, the state became firmly committed to the principles of reform that were sweeping the nation, and he became the symbol of this new order in state politics.

I appreciate your attention, and I especially appreciate the opportunity this occasion has given me to learn more about my grandfather. Thank you for joining us here at the old governor's mansion on this beautiful North Dakota afternoon.