Wilbert H. Burke, 68, postal official who became advocate for children

February 02, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Wilbert Henry Burke, a retired postal official who became an advocate for children and those who never learned to read, died Monday of complications from diabetes and influenza at University of Maryland Medical Center. The Poppleton resident was 68.

When he was appointed postmaster of Annapolis in 1980, he became the first African-American to hold the job in that city.

Born in Baltimore and raised on St. Mary Street, he was a graduate of St. Pius V Parochial School at Harlem and Arlington avenues. He attended Douglass High School before joining the Air Force on his 17th birthday. He remained in the military for six years and was stationed in Alaska and Florida. While in the service, he studied business administration.

After being honorably discharged, he joined the old Baltimore Transit Co. as a bus driver and streetcar motorman. He worked out of the Park Terminal facing Druid Hill Park.

"When he finished his bus route, he would go to the end of the line, sign off and go squirrel hunting. He took a gun with him," said his son, Enrique L. Burke, of Baltimore. "He knew how to enjoy life -- he liked to bowl tenpins, fish and garden in the yard."

In 1959 he heard of an opening at the Post Office. He studied for an examination and got a job handling mail. He advanced through the ranks, delivering mail in Edmondson Village and managing the Waverly, Clifton and Ellicott City post offices. After study at a post office school in Bethesda, he was named to head the Annapolis post office on Church Circle. Several years later, he became postmaster of Elmira, N.Y., and then Fairport, N.Y.

"My father told me he spent three years on the living room floor studying postal regulations," said his son. "He believed he gained what he did on the basis of his achievements, not the color of his skin."

Mr. Burke retired from federal service in 1986.

"After 21 years of employment with the Postal Service, he has never felt stifled or held back," said a Baltimore Afro-American profile on him published in October 1980. "The Postal Service is a better organization than most people realize," Mr. Burke said in the article.

After retirement, Mr. Burke decided to serve as an advocate for children who were caught up in the legal system.

Several days a week, he walked from his home to the Learning Bank of COIL, a West Baltimore Street adult literacy center. Until his eyesight gave out, he tutored adults to prepare for General Educational Development diplomas. He also volunteered at a neighborhood youth center, the House of Mercy on Hollins Street.

Services will be held at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow at the March Funeral Home, 4300 Wabash Ave.

Survivors include his wife of 34 years, the former Clementine Blair; two other sons, William A. Burke and Michael E. Burke, both of Baltimore; two stepsons, Roddrick Robinson of Baltimore and Mark G. Robinson, of Colorado Springs, Colo.; a stepdaughter, Rojeria D. Graham of Baltimore; five sisters, Etlow Echols, Ella Smith, Catherine Purdie and Monica Murray, all of Baltimore and India Price of Denver; seven grandchildren; and two great-great granddaughters. A son, Wilbert Howard Burke, died in 1997.

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