Shephard H. Burge Jr., 83, activist for Cherry Hill area

August 08, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Shephard H. Burge Jr., an activist who worked tirelessly for more than 50 years improving the quality of life for his Cherry Hill neighbors, died of complications from diabetes Aug. 1 at Genesis Eldercare Hammonds Lane Center in Brooklyn Park. He was 83.

Known as the "Mayor of Cherry Hill," Mr. Burge had lived in the tightly knit community of 11,000 residents, south of the Hanover Street bridge, since 1946.

Born and raised in Knoxville, Tenn., he earned his bachelor's degree in 1940 in health and physical education from Arkansas AM&N at Pine Bluff, now the University of Arkansas.

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Mr. Burge served with the Army during World War II and was wounded during the Solomon Islands campaign in the Pacific. He was then discharged with the rank of sergeant major.

After moving to Baltimore, he worked as a recreation supervisor of social and athletic programs for the Department of Recreation and Parks until joining the U.S. Postal Service as a letter carrier in 1958. He delivered letters in the city's Arlington section until retiring in 1984.

As a child, Mr. Burge demonstrated the charisma and leadership skills that would become so important in his work as an activist, family members said.

In 1947, he helped establish the Cherry Hill Coordinating Council, which pressed for educational, health, social, religious and commercial development in the neighborhood.

He became the founding editor and publisher in 1957 of the monthly Cherry Hill News, a position he held until declining health in 1992.

After a four-year hiatus, he came out of retirement, noting "conflicts in the community" due to a lack of neighborhood information, and established a new monthly, the Cherry Hill Connection.

During the mayoral administration of William Donald Schaefer, he was appointed a mayor's representative and was responsible for the Cherry Hill, Mount Winans, Westport and Fairfield neighborhoods.

Mr. Burge was known for his patient determination, firmness, and his trademark black homburg.

"He was successful because he cared about the community and the people and was very vigilant. He had a profound influence on the life of Cherry Hill," said Rosa L. McCoy, special assistant to Mr. Burge when he was the mayor's representative. "When you spoke of Cherry Hill, people automatically thought of Shep Burge."

Mrs. McCoy, also a longtime Cherry Hill resident and activist, pointed to Mr. Burge's many accomplishments and his gentlemanly, yet outspoken, manner in achieving them.

"He'd go to any and all meetings to ensure the community got its fair share. He was instrumental in getting a library, social, health, drug abuse, legal and mental health services to come to the neighborhood so people wouldn't have to leave Cherry Hill. He established a minibus service to take patients to their appointments," she said.

Tom Saunders, a supervisor at Baltimore's Community Relations Commission, described him as "one of the last of the old-time community leaders who made great accomplishments. ... He was an old community organizer who always had the interest of his community at heart, and you can see those results.

"He was a straightforward person who told it as it was and he never held back," Mr. Saunders said.

"He really was a legend in his own time. He was always a tremendous asset for Cherry Hill and was determined in building a better community than when he found it. And as Matthew 25, verse 23 says, `Well done, good and faithful servant,'" said Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, a 6th District Democrat. "Cherry Hill has quite a history, and he's a big part of that history."

"He was truly a man for the people throughout his entire life. He was full of ideas, commitment and follow-through. He had the opportunity to make a difference and the talent to make things happen," said a daughter, Cherryale C. Burge of Baltimore.

Mr. Burge was an avid Colts, Ravens and Orioles fan.

He was a communicant of St. Veronica Roman Catholic Church in Cherry Hill, where a Mass of Christian burial was offered yesterday.

Mr. Burge is survived by his wife of 62 years, the former Myrtle Barnes, his college sweetheart; two other daughters, Carmelita Burge Riley of Columbus, Ohio, and Avonee E. Brown of Baltimore; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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