Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Flashback 1999: "To love and not to count the cost"

Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Ed Burke is going to be in the headlines for a long time, as the wheels of justice slowly grind him into gristle. I can't say I'm shedding any tears. But I've long been an admirer of his wife, Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, and my heart goes out to her. I met her nearly 20 years ago, when I was a half reporter/half columnist, so low on the Sun-Times totem pole that I worked Saturday nights. 
     Back then, the Burkes were controversial because they had become foster parents to a black child, "Baby T," and the child's biological mother, finding out the powerful couple caring for her baby thanks to her own neglect and, sensing opportunity, tried to claw the poor kid back.
     The city desk sent me out to cover a speech by Judge Burke, and this resulted.  Note: the Burkes eventually got the child back, and raised him to maturity. Those looking to condemn the Burkes in all things often lump in their decision to care for a foster child, as if it were somehow disreputable, as if they had kidnapped the boy for their own nefarious ends, rather than saved him from a life of neglect. 
     That's ridiculous. I never doubted her good intentions, and think of it now that the couple are receiving general scorn. I find it mitigating, as the lawyers say, and remember having tea with Anne Burke after this. By the time she was done lauding the importance of foster parentage, I was ready to go out and sponsor a child myself. I soon recovered my true, much smaller nature. But I'll never forget the passion and sincerity with which she spoke about the need to help others.

     A reporter was sent to do a story on a prize French poodle arriving on the zeppelin Hindenburg. Hours later he staggered back to the office, his hair singed and face sooty.
     "No story," he said. "The thing exploded and I couldn't find the poodle."
     I made that up, long ago, to illustrate the way reporters, intent on one story, sometimes miss another.
     It happened again, almost, Saturday night, when State Appelate Court Justice Anne M. Burke spoke to a dinner given by Uhlick's Foster Parents United, a foster parents group.
     Burke was herself a foster mother, raising the child known to the public as Baby T, until the original mother, a former drug addict, reclaimed the child after a court fight.
     Burke never had spoken publicly about the situation. This speech—my editor said—delivered to foster parents, might be the opportunity she was looking for to open up.
     I noted that judges are not known for their unwise personal revelations—unwise because the case has not yet completely played itself out, and any grabs for public sympathy might not be well-received by the judge. But it was a quiet Saturday night, so I went.
     The dinner was in a small room in the basement of the Hyatt on Ashland Avenue. Taped music. Balloons. Nothing fancy.
     Burke and her husband, Ald. Edward Burke, came in. They sat and chatted, then Burke was introduced.
     She spoke, not about herself, but about foster parenting.
     "Through your love and generosity, the lives of the most vulnerable and fragile children are strengthened and protected," she said. "Being a foster parent is both a unique responsibility and an incalculable act of love."
    "Love" was a word she used again and again. She urged the foster parents to not let whatever bureaucratic problems they encounter sidetrack them.
     "It is so critical for us to continually remind each other what the real focus of our attention is—to love and not to count the cost," she said. "Everything else is irrelevant—even the unflattering publicity."
     That's the closest she came to talking about herself — negative publicity surely can't be a very big problem for the average foster parent, though it certainly was for the Burkes, who were rewarded for quietly sheltering a child and loving him by having their home picketed.
     Still, it was not enough. Not personal enough. No story. I capped my pen and listened.
     "When we love like that, we change the world for that fragile infant, for that shy little child, for that bright and gifted toddler who looks to us for safety," she said. "To be able to make the world safe for another is a great gift. A sacred trust. I believe it comes from what is deepest and most substantive in each one of us. It arises out of that pool of goodness that is in the heart of each of us. Such power is transformative. It heals and makes whole."
     Burke said that the good news is that children all over the state are succeeding because generous adults open their hearts to them. The bad news, she said, is there aren't enough adults for the swelling numbers of children in need. It is a tough job and only the rare person is willing to try.
     "Loving is not always easy. It has a price. But that has always been the case. For each of us, the generous people who made a difference in our lives are the ones who didn't stop to total the cost," she said. "It is no accident that households built on love thrive and grow. It is no accident that homes fashioned by a generous spirit are filled with hope. It is no accident that families bound together in love survive the unexpected surprises in life."
     She finished her speech. The foster parents applauded heartily. Burke was given a plaque. I slipped out and found a phone and called the office.
     "No story," I said.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 29, 1999


  1. I started as a volunteer with the Cook county juvenile department back in 1990. I mentored two boys they were twins until their mother abandon them in their early teens. I took on the role of a foster parent.
    Sadly one of the boys died of an overdose New year's Eve 2002 while having just been released from prison and visiting his mom for holiday festivities. His brother couldn't come to his funeral because he was in prison for carjacking.

    I heard from the surviving boy a couple of weeks ago for the first time in several years. He called to tell me that his mom had passed.

    Thankfully things turned out better with my biological children and stepson.

    Mentoring and fostering abused and neglected children is a tough row to how.

    It doesn't always turn out how you hope.

  2. Very eloquent. And compelling.


  3. Thank you for this reminder of the selflessness and grace we imperfect humans are capable of achieving. I'd only like to point out that this story involves not one, but two, equally beautiful souls.

  4. The Burkes are not monsters and should be honored for their good deeds equal to the scorn served up for their transgressions. Hopefully the adopted child returns and experiences the love of a good family, and can appreciate his good fortune. I can't help wondering about his reaction to the knowledge of his adopted fathers' treatment of Harold Washington.

  5. The photo of the day, Neil, a perspective of this site never seen by me. Long ago, I walked past the plaza hundreds of times, mostly on the way to the Berghoff, but I never really noticed the building between Quincy and Adams, just west of the post office. It looks refurbished or just cleaned, what is it called?

    1. That photo shows prominently the Clark Adams Building, located at 210 South (where else but) Clark St. Behind the photographer is the Everett McKinley Dirksen United States Courthouse, where Ed Burke will be tried.

    2. Thanks Bernie. Working at the Merc with an office in the Field Building, I was familiar with this area. From using the undergrounds and lobbies on rainy days, or taking in the many art works inside and out around the Loop, I had an appreciation for some of our cities hidden gems. But I have no sight memory of the east side of this structure. On closer examination, what I saw as contrasting masonry is just uneven repair. Like its' cousin, the Carbide and Carbon Building, it could be another architectural treasure if fully restored.

  6. I'm not sure I want to know because it involves invasion of privacy, but it makes one wonder how events transpired. I have the impression that "Baby T" turned out all right, but never heard again about the birth mother.

    Funny made up story about the French poodle reminds me of a real event related by Ben Hecht, in his Child of the Century," which I am currently wading through. In his brief Chicago newspaper career Karl Sandburg was admired in the newsroom but for his poetry, but had trouble getting the hang of reporting. Sent to Minneapolis to cover a labor convention, he neglected to phone in a major scoop when the top union boss was shot on the speakers stand.



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