Sioux City Journal: Scholarship Rises from RAGBRAI Tragedy

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

By Tim Gallagher
Sioux City Journal

Courtesy photo


Michael Burke was 27 when he died during RAGBRAI in Sheldon, Iowa, six years ago. His family established a scholarship in his memory. (Courtesy photo)

This week is a tough one for Tom and Bette Burke of tiny Donnellson, in the southeast corner of Iowa. Reminders are ever present as RAGBRAI assembles in western Iowa and rolls east.

Six years ago yesterday, their 27-year-old son, Michael Burke, died when a tree limb fell on his tent during a storm in Sheldon, the first overnight community for the 2005 RAGBRAI.

"The pain is always there," said Bette Burke. "Time does diminish it a little bit, but his memory will never go away. This week is a hard one for us."

Michael Burke, the 1996 valedictorian of Central Lee High School, earned a degree in industrial engineering from his beloved University of Iowa in 2001.

Before starting work full-time for Accenture Consulting in Chicago, Burke joined three college friends traveling through Europe. He then backpacked alone through Ireland.

Work would eventually take him across the United States and to Manila, Philippines. He moved to New York City to work a year before he died. He loved the big city, his mother said.

RAGBRAI allowed him to reconnect to his home state, beginning in 2003. The former high school and college singer relished the chance to finish a RAGBRAI day in song at a karaoke bar. For Michael, there was no greater high than being in front of a crowd.

"Michael always liked to bike and RAGBRAI was a good way for him to reconnect with college friends who biked," Bette said. "After he died, we got letters and emails from people he stayed with on the ride. They all commented about what a nice young man he was and how privileged they were to have met him."

Sounds like Central Lee High was privileged to have him.

"Michael always tried to figure out a way to give back to his high school and community," Bette said. "When he'd be home on vacation, he'd go to Central Lee High School and talk to kids about the importance of their education."

Not every 20-something makes a point to do that while back home on some R&R. "He was wise beyond his years that way," his mother concluded.

He's still giving, six years after his death. His family and friends established the Michael Burke Foundation a few years ago. Classmates and others raise money for future University of Iowa students. A memorial golf tournament last year generated $2,800.

Tia Johnson, a 2011 Central Lee High School graduate, earned the latest $2,500 Michael Burke Foundation Scholarship. She'll put it to work as she embarks on a sociology course of study at the University of Iowa next month.

Johnson, the daughter of Ray and Julie Johnson of Donnellson, is the sixth recipient of Burke's scholarship.

"We are really grateful for all of the support we've had over the years," Bette Burke said. "Michael was a wonderful son and brother and he loved his little nieces and nephews."

"It's a tough week," Bette Burke repeated. "But it's always nice to get the chance to talk about him."