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Heather Whitney


RIP: Edward W. Burke, Jr.

Remembering a stellar professor of physics.

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Edward W. Burke, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy and former vice president of King College in Bristol, Tennessee, passed away June 15, 2011. Dr. Burke had been associated with King for over sixty years, beginning with his appointment as physics and astronomy professor in 1949. He received the bachelor of science of mathematics degree from Presbyterian College in 1947 and the master of science and doctor of philosophy degrees in physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1949 and 1954, respectively. During his tenure at King, he served as chair of the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics for over thirty years, as well as Vice President for Academic Affairs for three years. Dr. Burke remained affiliated with the college as professor emeritus after his retirement in 1991, maintaining an office in the physics department and doing much to maintain a community of King College science and mathematics alumni.

His academic accomplishments were numerous, including a stint as Fulbright Professor at the University of Chile in Santiago, Chile, and as a visiting astronomer with the Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. He was a member of Sigma Xi. In 1973 the Southeastern Section of the American Physical Society awarded him the Pegram Award for excellence in the teaching of physics.

Burke made great contributions to local activities in physics and astronomy, both at King College and in the Bristol community. He was a founding member of the Bristol Astronomy Club, a group that is still active today, and together with students he built the observatory that now bears his name as well as conducting research on variable stars. Long before undergraduate research was an area of focus for liberal arts institutions, he secured grants from the National Science Foundation and Research Corporation to fund research with King College students.

Any faculty member would be proud of a career that yielded such accolades (and indeed, there are many more that could be mentioned), but Burke's contributions to the King College community extend beyond these and across many generations of students and fellow faculty members. He is remembered fondly for his kind, dedicated, and determined personality. As one fellow faculty member recalled, he was a true southern gentleman. Burke was also known as an entertaining and riveting classroom and lab teacher, particularly for his yo-yo skills, perhaps honed when in 6th grade he was hired by Woolworths in Macon, Georgia to demonstrate the toy to promote sales. Like some of the best physics teachers, he could be a bit daring at times, standing on lab tables to grab the attention of large classes and even demonstrating fire-eating, despite a burn to his chin. His classroom storytelling skills were appreciated not only by students but by fellow faculty, who learned much from him. Out of the classroom, he was known as a fierce badminton player, playing well into his eighties.

Burke also played a significant role in fostering a community of King College science and mathematics alumni. He maintained an email list which he contacted periodically, detailing the status of the division at King and naming alumni with whom he had recently come into contact. Each spring during Dogwood Weekend, King's yearly alumni event, Burke hosted a breakfast for alumni of the division. At these breakfasts, he had alumni share stories of when they had graduated and what work they had since done, facilitating a community bound by history and pride. In 2003, he published Stories from My First Fifty Years at King College, a treasure of institutional memory. One friend has remarked, "it is not so much about Ed as about others, which would be characteristic of him." Ed Burke will be greatly missed by his friends and family. He embodied what it means to be a faculty member at a small institution in the liberal arts tradition, with an influence that goes well beyond the physics and astronomy classroom.

Heather Whitney is assistant professor of physics at Wheaton College.

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