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David Burke, 78; former Ted Kennedy chief of staff

Mr. Burke avoided seeking the spotlight despite the powerful roles assumed.

Mr. Burke avoided seeking the spotlight despite the powerful roles assumed.

Six years after going to work for US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whom he served as chief of staff, David Burke left for the private sector, rather than await the exhaustion of spending too many years in a high-pressure job helping shape public policy.

Shunning offers to put his political access to work for lobbyists, he headed to New York City and Dreyfus Corp., one of the nation’s largest investment management firms. There he became special assistant to the chairman and started the Third Century Fund, which invests in socially responsible companies.

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“The only thing you leave Washington with, hopefully, is people’s respect,” he told the Globe in 1971 when he moved to Dreyfus Corp., “and I didn’t want to trade on that.”

He need not have worried about losing the esteem of others. During a career that included stints as the top aide to Kennedy and New York Governor Hugh Carey and running CBS News, Mr. Burke collected accolades that managed to outshine even his extensive resume.

“There has never been one day that he gets less than A-plus professionally and morally,” Felix Rohatyn, the investment banker Carey appointed to rescue New York City from potential bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, said of Mr. Burke in a 1976 Globe interview. “In my opinion he is one of the finest human beings and one of the greatest public servants any place in the country.”

Mr. Burke, whose integrity was matched by his quiet aversion to the spotlight, died of complications from vascular dementia Friday in Lawrence Memorial Hospital in Medford. He was 78 and lived in Charlestown.

“Dave Burke never worked for me, but with me,” Kennedy told the Globe in 1988, not long after Mr. Burke became president of CBS News. “He has always been his own person.”

Mario Cuomo, the former New York governor who met Mr. Burke when both worked in the Carey administration, praised his “splendid, splendid intellect” and “superb sense of propriety.”

“We needed people like him,” Cuomo said. “There are very few people like him, whether in Boston or New York. . . . He’s the kind of person who makes leaders better leaders.”

Mr. Burke did that as the chief administrative aide to Kennedy and Carey, and he also was a key mentor to newcomers when he served in leadership roles. Before becoming president of CBS News, Mr. Burke filled pivotal positions at ABC News, where he became executive vice president during the years when “Nightline” and “20/20” were launched. While working at ABC, he hired as a research assistant Neil Shapiro, who had just graduated from Tufts University, Mr. Burke’s alma mater.

“I think he admired idealism,” said Shapiro, who became president of NBC News and is now president and CEO of WNET-TV in New York. “He was an incredible mentor because he really understood the dreams and hopes of young people, the dreams of those who wanted to have an impact. As long as you wanted in some way to change the world, he thought that was a great goal.”

Paul Kirk, who was appointed interim US senator from Massachusetts after Kennedy died in 2009, described Mr. Burke “as a man of conscience, and by that I mean whenever there was a discussion of public policy or a problem to be solved or a decision to be made, you always knew that Dave was asking himself the question: ‘What is the right thing to do?’ That was the foremost thought in everything he did. His sense of needing to do what is right guided his life.”

David Warren Peter Burke was born in Boston and grew up in Brookline. His father was a police officer, his grandfather a firefighter, and his mother had been a Filene’s sales clerk before staying home to raise Mr. Burke and his four older siblings.

“He was always rooted in who he was and where he came from,” said his son Terence of Melrose. “He felt he was given such great opportunities by people who had faith in him, and he wanted to pass that on to others.”

Mr. Burke graduated from St. Mary’s High School in Brookline and from Tufts University. He served in the Army and in 1959 married Beatrice C. Pollock, who is known as Trixie. They met when he was a drugstore soda jerk and his boss thought he should date a young woman who came in wearing dainty white gloves. One visit, she heard a mellifluous voice and turned to see Mr. Burke, a slender young man in a crew cut and glasses.

“My father was so truly dedicated to my mom and loved her so much,” Terence said. “He would be running CBS News and would call her twice a day, just to check in.”

Initially, Mr. Burke wanted to run the United Chemical Workers Union and worked at the Lever Brothers plant in Cambridge. Changing course, he went as a scholarship student to the University of Chicago, from which he graduated with a master’s in business administration. While there he met George Shultz, a future US treasury secretary and secretary of state, for whom Mr. Burke helped prepare a policy report.

In 1961 he joined the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He was an assistant to the secretaries of commerce and labor, and executive secretary on the President’s Advisory Committee on Labor-Management Policy, before joining Edward Kennedy’s staff in 1965.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed him to be the first chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federal agency that oversees US civilian international media such as Radio Free Europe. The agency presents annual awards, named for Mr. Burke, honoring distinguished journalism “for exceptional integrity, bravery, and originality in reporting.”

Despite his accomplishments, Mr. Burke “never blew his own horn,” Cuomo said. “He didn’t have to. Just being in his presence and hearing him speak was enough to convince a person that he was someone you wanted to have in government, and have beside you as a friend.”

Besides his wife and son, Mr. Burke leaves three other sons, David Jr. of Manhattan, N.Y., Brendan of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Owen of Los Angeles; a daughter, Kathleen Laird of Bolton; a sister, Constance Curtis of Milton; and 10 grandchildren.

A funeral Mass was said Wednesday in Mr. Burke’s boyhood parish, St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Brookline.

“Every conversation was important to Dave,” Kirk said. “Nothing was trivial, and he listened with interest to anything anyone had to say. In any conversation, Dave was a thought leader. He was a deep thinker and had a keen intellect, but he balanced his innate wisdom with an Irish wit.”

Though much success came his way, “my dad never wanted just to pursue power or to pursue money,” Terence said. “He would always ask, ‘Are you doing the right thing or are you doing the easy thing?’ He wanted you to do everything based on integrity, and also to be compassionate. That’s what he taught us in life. And from that, all good things will flow.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.

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