Obituaries

John C. Burke, a Globe editor who ‘represented the best’ about journalism, dies at 88

John C. Burke trained generations of reporters over his half-century of service to the Globe.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File
John C. Burke trained generations of reporters over his half-century of service to the Globe.

John C. Burke, who called himself a “railroad man’s son,” started out in newspapers during World War II, when he’d join his paperboy pals at the train station to wait “both mornings and afternoons for the trains to come in with the newspapers they had to deliver.”

He began working in newsrooms upon graduating from high school in 1948, and there he stayed for 66 years, including a half-century at the Globe. The profession changed enormously during his career and Mr. Burke did, too, at one point serving as a consultant to boston.com as the Globe moved into the digital era.

For half his Globe tenure, he was the editor in charge on Saturdays and Sundays, making do with a small weekend staff of young, newly-hired reporters, student co-ops, and interns when summer rolled around. Mr. Burke could make that compact crew feel like a full, bustling newsroom.

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“He was not someone who said, ‘Let’s let things happen.’ That didn’t apply to John. He made things happen,” said Thomas Mulvoy, a former Globe managing editor. “He knew what to do, and he encouraged people.”

johnburke John Burke Photo by Janet Knott July 12, 1984
Janet Knott
John Burke in 1984.
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Mr. Burke, whose last byline appeared four years ago in his final role as the editor in charge of Globe Santa, died Monday of complications from dementia. He was 88 and lived in the Magnolia section of Gloucester.

“I think every organization has people who basically represent its bedrock principles, and John — or JCB, as we called him — was one of those folks at the Globe,” said Matthew V. Storin, a former editor of the Globe. “He stressed getting it right, getting it fast, writing it clearly.”

During his Globe career, Mr. Burke filled so many positions that his titles were a swirl in sentence summarizing his service when he retired the first time. He had been a copy editor and assistant night editor. As suburban editor, he helped launch the Globe’s zoned editions. He also had been metropolitan editor and an assistant managing editor. In 2005, the Academy of New England Journalists honored him with a Yankee Quill Award for his lifetime contribution to journalism excellence.

The title “retired” didn’t sit well, though. As legend has it, he attended his retirement party in 1996, after stepping down as assistant managing editor, and began working the next morning at boston.com. Mr. Burke walked out the doors a final time 18 years later, at age 84.

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“He was very loyal. You’d have to say he was a workaholic,” said former Globe editor John S. Driscoll.

John Burke with William O. Taylor at a reception in the Globe Link.
John Burke with William O. Taylor at a reception in the Globe Link.

“John was a little bit out of the movies, but he got the job done,” said Driscoll, who added that when Mr. Burke supervised the sparse weekend staff, “at the end of the day, none of the reporters could say they were sitting around — that’s for sure.”

He took the same approach at boston.com as he helped train another generation of Globe journalists.

“Granted, he would print out stories so that he could still edit them by pencil, but it was his news judgment that we valued. Our online producers were young and green, and John whipped them into shape,” said Teresa Hanafin, boston.com’s first editor, who now manages the Globe’s e-mail newsletters.

“And he loved those young people. And they loved him,” she added. “As did I.”

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Brian McGrory, now the Globe’s editor, was one of many young reporters who learned a lot more about newspapers by working weekends for Mr. Burke.

“It was the equivalent of going to an elite graduate school for journalism, only with more profanity,” McGrory recalled. “The guy was flat-out brilliant about how you approach a story, where you go, who you call, how to write it. Afterward, when everything was shipped, he’d walk by your desk and say, ‘We got the sons-of-bitches today.’ ”

johnburke John Burke Photo by John Tlumacki Aug. 27, 1983?
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File
John Burke in the 1980s.

Born in 1930, John Clifton Burke grew up in Manchester-by-the-Sea, where as a boy he picked up the nickname Finney, after Lou Finney of the Red Sox who — like Mr. Burke at the time — was playing first base.

At night in childhood, Mr. Burke wrote in 1990 for the Globe’s North Weekly, he “would lie in bed listening to the daily freight train, the engine wheels often slipping on the wet or icy rails, slowly climbing the Magnolia hill.”

His father, Clifton Burke, was a manager with the Boston & Maine Railroad. His mother, the former Anna Coughlin, also worked for the railroad, and her civic involvement gave John an early education about whom to seek out when he wanted to know what was really going on.

During World War II, Mr. Burke volunteered to help watch the coastal waters for enemy vessels, and he began freelancing for local newspapers. Mr. Burke graduated from Manchester High School in a class of fewer than 20 students, and then joined the staff of the Beverly Times, where he was a reporter and photographer. A stint at the Haverhill Journal in 1964 was brief. Mr. Burke and the paper’s conservative then-owner, the well-known William Loeb, didn’t mesh.

Donald C. Preston/File 1974
Thomas Oliphant and John Burke, part of the Globe team preparing a special section on the Nixon resignation.

He joined the Globe that year as a copy editor and had his first byline a few months later, in February 1965. His final byline appeared on Christmas Day in 2014.

“As he said himself, he did what he wanted to do and that gave him a great deal of satisfaction,” said his wife, Irene.

Mr. Burke married Irene Pereira in 1973 and was her tireless supporter, encouraging Irene to run her own business, the Patio Restaurant in Magnolia. “I said to him at the time, ‘I don’t have the stamina,’ ” she recalled. “He said, ‘Of course you do.’ He was the person who gave me the confidence in myself to do the things I do.”

She had children from a previous marriage, but “he never once called them stepchildren. He always introduced them as his own children.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Burke leaves their children Cheryl Sinapis of Topsfield, Thomas Winn of San Leandro, Calif., and Margot Rezza of Magnolia; a sister, Mary Manseau of Haverhill; two grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Friday in Sacred Heart Church in Manchester-by-the-Sea. Burial will be in Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

“He was the kind of person who could bring out the best in everybody,” Irene said.

Stephen Kurkjian, a former reporter for the Globe’s Spotlight team whose investigative work has been honored with three Pulitzer Prizes, said Mr. Burke “was a mentor to me for my entire life. If you were stuck in a story that involved procedure or local politics, John knew it and he was the best resource we had in the newsroom.”

Though best known as an editor, Mr. Burke was also a sharp observer as a writer, which was evident in a 1991 obituary he wrote about a Gloucester clam digger.

“With his bright caps, weathered woolen jackets, Army-type pants, and rubber boots, he was perfect material for any New England story or picture book. The way he talked, his raspy voice; the way he walked, with a lean and a grumble. He wore glasses, had character galore in his long, lined face,” Mr. Burke wrote, his prose as laconic as his subject.

The funeral was substantial, “the type of recognition you might have expected for an educator or a political figure, not a clam digger,” Mr. Burke wrote. “But then again, those attending did not see George Gleason as an ordinary, everyday man.”

Those closest to Mr. Burke would say the same about him.

“He represented the best fundamentals about journalism,” said Storin.

“He was an amazing man,” Mr. Burke’s wife said.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.