Noe Valley Voice March 2010

Two-year-old Ed Burke (left) takes a ride with his older brother Francis near their home on 15th Street in the Mission District.
Photos courtesy Heather Green and Doris McKay

Marathon Man Reaches End of Long Run

By Tim Innes

Ed Burke--son of Irish immigrants, devout Catholic, devoted family man, World War II veteran, and longtime city employee--was the quintessential Noe Valleyan.

But Ed was anything but ordinary. While his contemporaries were enjoying retirement on the golf course or on a bench outside a neighborhood coffee shop, he was running marathons and leaving competitors a third his age far behind.

Ed's long run came to an end Oct. 14, 2009, three months short of his 92nd birthday. Ed attributed his longevity to giving up smoking in his early 50s and taking up long-distance running, according to granddaughter Heather Green of Day Street.

Edmund J. Burke was born Jan. 15, 1918, to Patrick and Helena "Nellie" Reilly Burke, who had each come to America in 1898 and ended up in San Francisco. Married in 1905, they raised five children--Maggie, Mary, Charles, Francis, and Ed--in a house they built at 15th and Ramona streets, about a block north of Mission Dolores.

At 16, Ed entered St. Joseph's College seminary in Mountain View, but he dropped out after a year and returned to Sacred Heart High School. After graduation, he attended Heald's Business College and worked as a vendor at Seals Stadium, which allowed him to watch baseball games for free.

Following Pearl Harbor, Ed joined the Army Air Corps and saw action in Italy as a bombardier aboard B-24 Liberator bombers. In October 1945, he returned to San Francisco to wed Anne Bramblett, an Army nurse he'd met in Texas, at St. James Catholic Church on Guerrero Street.

Anne and Ed Burke cut the cake after their wedding on Oct. 27, 1945. The couple met during World War II on an Army base in Texas, where she was a nurse and he was undergoing flight training.

Anne, who was raised a Southern Baptist, converted to Catholicism, and the couple became active members of St. Paul's Catholic Church on Church Street.

After the birth of a daughter, Doris, in 1946, the couple spent five years in Anne's native South before returning to the city for good. In 1952, they paid $11,000 for a new two-bedroom house at 549 28th Street--a house that would eventually be home not only to Ed, his wife, and daughter, but to his three grandchildren as well.

Ed worked as a stenographer at City Hall, then took a meter-reading job with the Water Department--a position that allowed him to work outside and took him to every corner of the city. He worked for the department for 24 years, 20 of them as a meter reader. He retired in 1980.

Though he had started running again in his late 50s--he had run track in his youth--retirement freed Ed to train seriously for the marathon, at 26-plus miles the premier event of long-distance running. To get in shape, he would rise at 3 or 4 a.m., drive to Lake Merced, and make five circuits of the lake, which is about five miles around.

Ed, a compact 5-foot-7, competed into his late 70s and won many age-division trophies along the way. His personal best--3 hours, 16 minutes--came at the age of 62. By comparison, the best time last year for U.S. runners age 60 to 64 was 2 hours, 57 minutes.

Ed was always modest about his accomplishments, said daughter Doris McKay, 63, of Rohnert Park. "Dad didn't like a fuss made over him."

Granddaughters Heather Green and Melissa McKay remember Ed as lov ing, generous, and fiercely competitive. Melissa recalls losing a footrace up steep 28th Street to her grandfather when she was 13 and he was 65. "I was pretty in shape, but I could not beat him," said Melissa, who's now 36 and owns a yoga studio in New York.

"Gramps hated to lose, and he rarely did," added Heather, 35, who ran one marathon with her grandfather.

In addition to running, Ed played chess every Saturday at the San Francisco Chess Club--a pastime less physical, but just as competitive.

Retirement also found Ed and Anne assuming a greater role in raising their three grandchildren--Heather, Melissa, and older brother Mark McKay--who moved in with them after their parents divorced.

"Gramps put the three of us through St. Philip's and paid our tuition at Sacred Heart Cathedral," said Heather.

"He took care of us," added Melissa. "He made our lunches, attended our games, took us to the zoo."

"I was a runt of a kid and all-time benchwarmer," said Mark, 38, of San Carlos. "The season St. Ph ilip's won the city CYO basketball championship, I didn't get in for a single play. But Gramps was there for every game."

Now a lanky 6-foot-1, Mark says his grandfather encouraged him to be a runner because of his long legs. "But his stamina was far greater than mine, and he got up way too early for a teenager."

Ed also entertained the children, reciting scripture, Edgar Allen Poe, and Shakespeare, and singing hymns, "Danny Boy," and "Streets of Laredo" in his rich baritone.

After the grandchildren left home and Anne died in 1994, Ed remained in the house on 28th Street until December 2004, when failing health forced him to move to Nazareth House, a nursing home in San Rafael.

In a transaction that would have amused the late Harry Aleo, who mocked Noe Valley's "looney" politics and stratospheric housing prices in the windows of his 24th Street real estate office, Ed's family sold the 1,000-square-foot house in early 2005 for $880,000. After the addition of a second floor containing two more bedrooms and bathrooms, the property changed hands again in March 2008 for $2.1 million--more than 190 times the original price.

In keeping with Ed's wishes--"I've outlived all my friends," he said--no service was held in the city after his death last fall. And no obituary appeared in the San Francisco papers. If there had been one, it would have said that in addition to daughter Doris, and grandchildren Mark, Melissa, and Heather, Ed is survived by Heather's husband, Brad, and son, Liam, of San Francisco, and Melissa's son, Phoenix Edmund McKay, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Spectators cheer Ed Burke as he nears the finish line of the 1979 Pacific Sun Marathon. He posted a personal best of 3 hours, 16 minutes, the following year at the age of 62.

The house on 28th Street where Ed Burke lived for 52 years was sold in 2005 for $880,000. That was 80 times what he and wife Anne paid for it.