When he described what he did, he would say “business development.” When he spoke, he might use Farsi or Arabic.
After Thomas Burke ’04 died at the age of 35 in 2017, his family and friends began fundraising to establish the Thomas Peter Burke Endowed Memorial Scholarship in honor of the 10-year CIA veteran. They have raised roughly $32,000 toward their goal of $50,000 to establish the scholarship.
“He wanted to protect us on the front lines of the most dangerous environments,” his college roomate and long-time friend Sean Lanigan ’04 said. “He impacted millions of people who will never know him, never know what he did.”
His friends remember him as a “classic Hillsdale” guy, with a great smile, a competitive streak, and a sense of mischief, said Joe Wloszek ’03.
For one prank, his friends filled his sheets with nickels, thinking his allergy to nickel would spark a rash. What they didn’t know was that nickels are mostly made of copper.
“He got home and cheap ol’ Burkey thought it was like Christmas, that he had gotten all this money for free,” Wloszek said. “The joke was on us, not on him.”
He coached the Hillsdale High School boys’ soccer team with Lanigan. They made the boys run three miles every morning, stopping outside each sorority house to make the boys drop and do push-ups.
“All the sorority girls would come to the windows, the front yard, and watch these boys,” Lanigan said. “The boys loved it — they would get up and flex and be all proud of themselves.”
“They taught those boys integrity,” his mother Cindy Burke said.
Before the Twin Towers fell, Burke’s friends jokingly called him “the politician.” But after 9/11, Burke changed. He focused on academics, began taking notes on the news, and became fixated on national security.
When he gave a commencement speech as class president in 2004, he spoke about how 9/11 had changed the world.
“Freedom — it does not come easily; it does not come cheaply,” Burke said in the speech. “Many lives have been sacrificed on its altar, and I am sorry to say that I know many more will be required.”
To his friends, his speech now seems prophetic.
“If you listen to the subtext of his speech, he is talking about himself,” Wloszek said. “He is talking about his journey, what he intended to do with his life.”
After he graduated, Burke joined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and then worked for the CIA for 10 years. He was deployed into Pakistan, Jordan, Europe, and South Asia, often in combat zones. While the details of his service remain highly classified, his family speculates that he was involved in the Stuxnet computer virus that dealt damage to Iran’s nuclear program.
Burke told everyone he worked in business development in Eurasia, but some of his more perceptive friends suspected all was not as it seemed. Burke spoke multiple languages, including Farsi; he had weapons training; and when he would call to check the Detroit Lions’ score, his calls invariably came from different hotspots across the world, said Jordan Gehrke, Burke’s childhood friend.
His mother said she knows that he was nearly killed at least three times; his friends heard fragments of various escapades and “hairy stuff.” Much of it Burke kept vague.
In one of his stories, he described walking down a road toward a checkpoint manned by a guard carrying an AK-47. When the guard began shouting at him, he bolted.
“Burke was a runner. He played soccer for Hillsdale, and the kid still had the ability to book it if he needed to,” Wloszek said. “He said it was one of those circumstances — it was not the first, it was not the last — where they were legitimately in harm’s way, in a place they should not have been in.”
His service was not without sacrifices.
“It was intense. He ended up with post-traumatic stress by the time the dust settled,” Lanigan said. “He would have episodes of night terrors about it. It was a cross he had to carry after being immersed for so long. You could see it in his face, especially the last couple years, that he was wearing a lot of stress and sleepless nights.”
When Burke left the CIA, he no longer dreamed of running for office; he wanted a quiet life with his girlfriend Sarah Ganslein. But in the late fall of last year, less than a year after he left the CIA, he died unexpectedly of complications related to a fall, according to his friends and family.
“I miss him. It was: ‘Ok, you’re off to D.C. and I’m giving you to the world.’ And oh, I didn’t realize the impact of it,” Cindy Burke said. “I would have liked to have him living down the street, getting married, having kids, but that was not Thomas. He was about changing the world.”
Several FBI agents attended his graveside service, where they gave Burke’s parents a plaque recognizing his service, a gesture his family and friends interpret as a sign that Burke’s accomplishments were worthy of respect.
Burke’s name will live on in Lanigan’s son, who bears Thomas’s name and shares his electric blue eyes.
“I wanted to honor Burkey,” said Lanigan. “I was trying to keep his legacy close to my heart. I think he means something different to everyone, and this was an opportunity for me to have a reminder in my life everyday.”
Reminding others about Thomas has not been easy. Those that knew him believe he helped protect millions, and they know that most of those millions will never even hear his name.
They cannot tell his story, but the Burkes hope to honor Thomas by giving another student like him the opportunity to study at Hillsdale College.
“We’re trying like the devil,” said Jim Wells ’70. “I think the students at Hillsdale should be very proud of Tom Burke. He epitomizes what Hillsdale is all about: honor, doing right, and doing right by others.”