Isaac Winford Burke, 57, Balto. County firefighter

May 18, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

Isaac Winford "Ike" Burke, who was the third African-American firefighter in the Baltimore County Fire Department and later, as a recruiter, sought to increase its diversity, died of cancer May 11 at St. Joseph Medical Center. The longtime Parkville resident was 57.

Mr. Burke was born and spent his early years in Winfall, N.C., before moving with his family to East Towson. He was a 1966 graduate of Towson High School and served in the Navy as an electronics repairman from 1968 to 1972.

"I was looking for a career and for some reason I got attracted to the Fire Department," Mr. Burke told The Towson Times in November, when he retired because of failing health.

After sending applications to fire departments in Washington, New Jersey, New York City and Baltimore, he was hired by the county department as a helper in its repair shop.

"I thought if I can get my foot in the door there, that it would enhance my chances of getting into the academy," Mr. Burke said in the 2005 interview.

In 1978, he entered the department's fire academy and after graduating was assigned as a firefighter at Station 12 in Middle River and later at Station 8 in Fullerton.

In 1981, he was promoted to the rank of fire specialist, responsible for hiring and recruitment.

"There are a lot of people out there who felt for a long time they would never have the opportunity to be a part of the Fire Department," he told the newspaper.

"Are we at the point where we should be happy? I'm not going to say we should be happy, but we are going in the right direction," Mr. Burke said in the interview.

"He was such a great guy and an inspiration to so many people. He literally changed the face of this department," county Fire Chief John J. Hohman said yesterday.

"Ike had a difficult job but was even liked by the union. He was always viewed as being fair and considerate even when conducting an internal investigation. He always conducted himself in such a way that everyone respected him," Chief Hohman said.

"When it came to making changes in the department, he worked hard and didn't flinch. Today, we have 129 blacks in the department and that is attributable to Ike," the fire chief said. "We're not quite leading the country yet, but because of his efforts during the last five years, we've made tremendous strides in creating a diverse work force."

In recent years, colleagues said, Mr. Burke was working hard to get Hispanics, Asians and women to consider Fire Department careers.

"He was my initial entrance into the department and I later preceded him as fire specialist. He was genuine, told it like it was and was very straightforward, yet he could also be laid-back and easygoing," said Zachary R. Stith, who was promoted to director of recruitment late last year.

"When it came to hiring and recruiting minorities, he understood the whole picture and had expectations and parameters," Mr. Stith said.

A sharp dresser, Mr. Burke stressed to new employees that being well-groomed and well-dressed at all times was not only important but expected.

"He was a dresser, and that goes back to the first day I met him. He never wore a departmental uniform but rather business dress and always with a shirt and tie. He was a very natty dresser right on down to his polished wingtipped shoes. He loved wingtips," Mr. Stith said.

Mr. Burke was unable to attend a party in his honor in early December, where colleagues signed a yellow fire helmet for him. The helmet - which bore an estimated 200 signatures - had No. 12 on it, recalling his first firefighting assignment.

"I accepted the helmet with all the signatures for my husband. It was so emotional because at the tribute there were so many people on whom he made such an impact," said his wife, the former Carmen Moore Robles, a Fire Department secretary with whom he had worked for 15 years and whom he married in March. "If he believed in you, he'd help you meet and accomplish your goals."

He was an avid University of Maryland basketball fan and tennis player, and enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren, his wife said.

Mr. Burke was a communicant of St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church in Northeast Baltimore.

Services with Fire Department honors will be held at 10 a.m. today at Mount Calvary African Methodist Episcopal Church, 300 Eudowood Lane, Towson, with interment at 10 a.m. tomorrow at Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery, 11501 Garrison Forest Road, Owings Mills.

Also surviving are three daughters, April Burke Faulcon of Baltimore, Kathleen M. Trussell of Parkville and Jessica L. Moore of Bel Air; a sister, Charlotte Hughes of Hillendale; and eight grandchildren. Two previous marriages ended in divorce.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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