Sometimes people only learn about the great accomplishments of a person after they die.
This was true for many of the friends and family of Thomas Burke ’04, who died at the age of 35 on Nov. 12 in Leesburg, Virginia, of injuries sustained after a fall. Despite his young age, the 10-year CIA veteran was highly decorated and one of the most accomplished officers of his generation, his parents and friends told The Collegian after speaking with former colleagues.
“It’s a weird thing to realize that your friend who you thought was this Clark Kent was Superman the whole time,” said Jordan Gehrke, Burke’s longtime friend since high school when they both attended a Student Statesmanship Institute summer camp in Lansing.
Burke had top security clearance, so many of his accomplishments are too secret to be disclosed at this time. Most of his friends and family, including his mother, were unaware he even worked for the CIA until a year ago when he was given permission to share that he was leaving the agency. He told them he was working for the U.S. State Department.
Although friends and family said his work in special operations surprised them, his patriotism and dedication to serve his country was not.
His mother, Cindy Burke, said he was ambitious from a young age and knew he wanted to enter into public service. He also had a heart for service, she said, recalling a time when her son saw coats on sale at the mall when he was in high school.
“He went in the store and bought a coat,” his mom said. “I said, ‘Why did you buy a coat?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe somebody someday might need that.’ Wow. He was always thinking how he could help other people. I remember it hanging in his room, and one day, I looked in, and it was gone.”
Cindy Burke said he never told her to whom he gave the coat but that it went to someone who needed it.
Thomas Burke chose to attend Hillsdale College because he wanted to study Austrian economics.
In addition to studying economics and earning a minor in political science, Burke played soccer for three years while Hillsdale had a Division II varsity team. After that, he channeled his passion for the game into coaching Hillsdale High School’s soccer team. Running the boys hard — literally five miles — each practice, Burke and his friend turned a losing team into state championship finalists. There was not a dry eye at the team’s banquet, Cindy Burke said.
“They set an example for the boys,” his father Tom Burke said. “They would not make them do anything they wouldn’t do. They taught them discipline, what it takes to be a man. They always dressed up in coats and ties as coaches for the games. I think that speaks to his character.”
Thomas Burke also pledged to Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, volunteered with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, interned in the White House, and earned the respect amongst his peers to be elected senior class president. He graduated magna cum laude in 2004 with a Bachelor of Science.
Despite such credentials, Joe Wloszek, Burke’s Simpson Residence suitemate who graduated in December 2003, most fondly remembers his time with “Burkie” for all of the pranks they would pull on each other.
After Wloszek humorously protested against an unfair team-up done by Burke and their roommates toward him, Burke said: “We are going to be friends for life.”
They did, and Burke would often call his friend from college with a new phone number in a foreign country just to check in. Wloszek was one of the 12 family members and friends who were with Burke at the hospital when he died.
Burke also studied abroad for a semester at Oxford University. While traveling in Europe at that time, he met members of the military in France. Seeing their dedication and service greatly aspired him, Cindy Burke said.
Following graduation, Burke took an examination to go into the CIA, but he missed the cut by one person, according to his mother. Emblazoned by the events of 9/11 he experienced as a sophomore at Hillsdale, he sought to serve his country in the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., for two years, according to his parents.
After working with the CIA on a project, the agency hired Burke almost immediately as an operations officer. He was deployed across Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, typically in combat zones. He became fluent in Farsi. In his patriotism, Burke collected and reported classified information, putting his country and colleagues ahead of his own life.
“I wanted to help create an environment where Americans could be safe to live their lives [and] not have to worry about their security in the process,” he once said, according to his obituary.
His friends and family said they knew this about him, despite not knowing exactly what he did to pursue that mission.
They said they saw his heart for service play out in his interactions with them instead. When Burke and Gehrke connected again in Washington, D.C., they would meet on Sundays three times a month at Clyde’s restaurant in Georgetown for several years to watch football and talk for a couple hours.
“If the conversation was going well, we might stay longer,” Gehrke said. “He was the type of person you could talk about anything with. He was that sort of charismatic figure: He cared deeply about not the most popular person in the room, made sure they had a seat and that they were noticed. He made you feel loved.”
His faith was an important part of his life, his father said. He said he realized the impact of this when a CIA colleague who served with his son in Pakistan approached him at his funeral in Washington, D.C.
“She said, ‘When we would get together, Thomas would pray for us. He would pray for all of us,’” Tom Burke said. “That really blessed me to learn about him, because that is something he would not share.”
After leaving the CIA, Burke pursued several projects based on connections he had. He intended to work for a private intelligence company in the United Kingdom to be closer to his girlfriend, Sarah Ganslein.
In addition to her and his proud parents, Burke is survived by his sister Amanda and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins. He was laid to rest in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery, the country’s first national burial ground.
The family is holding a celebration of his life on 11 a.m. on Dec. 8 at Christ the King Church of Oxford in Michigan with an hour to greet with relatives and friends prior to the service.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Wounded Warrior Project or to Hillsdale College for the Thomas Peter Burke Endowed Memorial Scholarship. His friends and family are hoping to raise $50,000 or more for the scholarship.
“I would love it if 20 years from now, there were young people benefiting from his life,” Gehrke said, “because frankly, we’re all still going to benefit from his life for a long time.”