Thomas Burke | Courtesy


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.”

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Breana Noble
Breana Noble is The Collegian's Editor-in-Chief. She is a born and raised Michigander and studies politics and journalism. This summer, Breana interned in New York City at TheStreet, a business and finance news website. She has previously worked for The Detroit News, The American Spectator, and Newsmax Media. She eventually hopes to pursue a career in investigative journalism. email: | twitter: @RightandNoble