Eddie Burke grew up in Waltham, joined the Marines after high school and was still just a kid when he found himself fighting the Viet Cong on Hill 55, southwest of Da Nang.
“I had shrapnel and gunshot wounds,” he was saying the other day. “But that wasn’t what really got me. It was the Agent Orange.”
The holes in his body healed, but the Agent Orange his own people used to clear the jungles of Vietnam latched onto him like a parasite.
Three times malignant melanoma invaded his body, and each time he fought the cancer off like the enemy on Hill 55.
“I had three kids,” he said. “They all had cancer.”
His son, Michael, was 27 when a tumor wrapped itself around his heart. A stem cell transplant at the Dana-Farber saved his life, and now he’s a sergeant with the Waltham police. The doctors said Mike and his wife, Lisa, would never have children because of his treatment. But they went on to have two beautiful kids.
Eddie Burke’s daughter Meeghan beat a couple of melanomas. She’s a special ed teacher, married to a cop, and she’ll make her dad a grandfather again next month.
His other daughter Jessica, his youngest, was a month shy of her third birthday when she died of a brain tumor.
Eddie Burke could have been consumed with grief. Instead he was consumed with helping others. He threw himself at raising money for Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund and believe me when I tell you he has raised millions of dollars for kids with cancer.
Everybody at the Dana-Farber knows Eddie, and everybody loves him.
It’s the same thing at the federal courthouse on the waterfront, where he worked security for the US Marshals Service for 12 years, after 15 years with the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office.
Last week, as a trial highlighting corrupt law enforcement agents was ending, Eddie Burke was saying goodbye to all his friends in the same courthouse. His life — as a Marine, as a survivor of war and cancer, as a father who buried a child, as a selfless fund-raiser, as a guy who only honored the badge he wore for 27 years — stood in stark relief compared to the tales of greed and arrogance and venality in Courtroom 11.
Judge Mark Wolf held a reception for Eddie Burke in his chambers, and all the bigshots turned out for a man who considers himself nothing special. The US attorney, Carmen Ortiz, hugged him.
“I knew her first husband,” Eddie Burke said. “He died of pancreatic cancer, God love him. I lost track of Carmen, and then she became US attorney and I saw her every day. She has a heart of gold. I always smile at her and call her commander.”
Judge Denise Casper, presiding over the Whitey Bulger trial, stopped by with Judge Rya Zobel and retired judge Nancy Gertner. Gertner’s husband, John Reinstein, heads the local ACLU.
“I’m an old Marine, and John’s ACLU, but we’re pals,” he said. “We get along like hand and glove.”
The US marshal, John Gibbons, wished him well. “I told the marshal if he sees me pushing a baby carriage in Waltham, don’t make fun of me.”
Judge Wolf already misses the old Marine who made him smile every day. Wolf said that as all that corruption was cataloged in Courtroom 11, “it was especially gratifying to be able to celebrate Eddie and to be reminded of the admirable qualities of the many in law enforcement, like Eddie, who serve the public anonymously, with great integrity, energy, and professionalism.”
For 67 years, Eddie Burke has followed a simple credo that his dad, a Belmont cop, passed down from his Irish parents.
“Politeness,” his father told him, “is to do and say the kindest thing in the kindest way.”
Eddie Burke is retiring and going nowhere but home to the lovely Rita, his wife of 35 years.
“I’m a blessed man,” he said. “Absolutely blessed.”