At twilight of a soft October night, on Day Boulevard, deep in South Boston, in a weathered first-floor meeting room of the Boston Harbor Yacht Club, there’s an end of the summer tranquility until, one by one, the four Burke brothers arrive, bearing sweet lobster rolls, potato chips, and ice-cold beer, and in rickety chairs around an antiquated table, their stories pour forth about Irish values, about the grand character of South Boston, and especially about the Burke family and their revered mother, Ellie, and their father, Johnny, a Good Samaritan who ran an old-fashioned drug store at D and Sixth for more than half a century.
First, though, regarding the Boston Irish Reporter award to the Burkes as exemplary Irish, the brothers agree on one point – they do not deserve the accolade.
“There’s nothing we did as a family that was extraordinary,” says Dennis, an orthopedic surgeon. “We didn’t become presidents of anything or captains of industry, and we didn’t cure cancer and we didn’t become great philosophers. But we are the children of two parents, second-generation Americans who never went beyond grammar school. We’re ordinary people lucky to have had parents who cared for us, who gave us direction, and who had a clear idea of right and wrong, and that’s all we needed.”
His brother, John, a senior vice president at Staples, picks up the narrative:
“First, my sister Jacquelyn couldn’t make it tonight, but she’s here in spirit. And if there’s a story here, the beginning is about two people from a poor background who found one another, and the middle part is that she worked hard to raise five children while he worked at his drugstore, seven days a week. The end of the story is the legacy, how their five children became 10 with wives, 29 with grandchildren and now with 12 great grandchildren, their offspring number is 41. It’s a story that fulfills my father’s dream to see articles in the newspaper about the good people of Southie.”
Today’s award is more important than the Academy Award for Best Hairstyling or the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album, because it’s recognition by neighbors and friends that the Burkes represent the best of Irish culture.
In an age when 25 percent of children are raised in single parent homes, and when 1.6 million children in America are homeless, the Burkes of South Boston are models of sibling loyalty who reflect the values of the Roman Catholic Church, South Boston, and their Irish heritage – with a big dash of Lithuanian. “We’re from a mixed marriage,” explains John. “My father was Irish, my mother Lithuanian, and we went to St. Peter’s, a Catholic Lithuanian school in Southie.”
Any portrayal of the Burkes begins with Johnny Burke (1907-1995), who ran the drugstore at D and Sixth Streets and never denied palliative drugs to anyone, however poor, and also his with wife, Ellie (1918-2005), who was known for her grace and generosity. As in most Irish households, Johnny may have been the public figure, but at home, Ellie was the puppeteer and everybody else a marionette.
So, meet the five “ordinary” children of Johnny and Ellie Burke:
* Jacquelyn, 65, of Dennis Port, retired pharmacist, mother of three.
* John, 64, of Milton, senior vice president at Staples, father of three.
* Paul, 63, of South Boston, district fire chief in Boston, father of three.
* Dennis, 62, of Milton, orthopedic surgeon at MGH, father of five.
* Michael, 59, of South Boston, retired sheet-metal worker, father of five.
The Burke home at 20 Marine Road was a Norman Rockwell painting, where father-in-law Vinnie sat at the living room piano playing “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” in honky tonk, and then Jacquelyn played a sing-a-long of her dad’s favorite, “You Are My Sunshine”; where mom made Halloween costumes of a penguin, George Washington, and Uncle Sam; and where Aunt May and Auntie Penny lived downstairs with Nana, who came up every day to have tea with mom. As Dennis says, “It was “The Waltons.”
Johnny wanted his family close. Paul was 32, married, and living downstairs when he bought the Kinnealy house across the street, and when Johnny heard that Paul would be moving, he wept. “But Dad,” said Paul, “it’s only across the street.”
Despite South Boston’s reputation for religious fervor regarding politics, the Burkes were agnostics, so consumed with family that politics was based on friendship. “My parents adored Louise Day Hicks and Billy Bulger and Ray Flynn,” said John, “ but that had nothing to do with politics, only personal relations.”