Friday, August 24, 2007

Goodbye, Mr. Burke ...

... I note with great sadness the passing of John J. Burke, who taught me English in my sophomore year at what was then Saint Joseph's College. In more civilized times, you did not, when asked about your education, say that you had attended some institution or other. You said that you had studied under so-and-so. John Burke was one of the teachers I studied under and from whom I learned much of what has proved to be the foundation of my intellectual life.
Nowadays, people spend tens of thousands of dollars every year so their kids can go to a big-box university and be taught by teaching assistants. John Burke may never have been a "name" scholar, but he was one hell of a teacher. One of the things I learned from him is that literature is first and foremost about life and the living of it.
Somerset Maugham was out of fashion in the academy back then - I guess he still is - but John Burke taught us to be suspicious of literary fashion. He made sure we knew the people behind the texts and the circumstances that gave birth to them. A class of his would commonly range from a discussion of Emerson's "The American Scholar" to a digression on Gounod's Faust followed by some commentary on Bette Davis and Leslie Howard's performances in Of Human Bondage.
Great teachers are an immense force for good. I have been blessed to have had several. Thinking about it now, I realize that John Burke's influence on me has proved both indelible and immeasurable. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.


  1. We are sometimes blessed with great teachers. How wonderfully lucky you were to know one.

    How poor we would be if, when we share the roll-call of our memories, there were no 'do-you-remember Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so'

    I fell in love with Shakespeare in high school thanks to Mr. Roach, who had the gift of communicating his excitement about literature to very apathetic students. His classroom became my jewelery box, and, unsurprisingly, I find myself dipping back into it often.

    If things were arranged properly, teachers would paid in gold, and reign over schoolroom palaces.

  2. Anonymous11:11 PM

    What a marvelous tribute to your Mr. Burke, and how proud he must be. We should all be so lucky. God bless you.