Remembering William Burke

by Linnea Bass

One of the NWTA's most dedicated members, William W. Burke, died on 24 May 1996 at the age of 66. He was buried with full military honors in the World War II Section of a Racine cemetery. Bill served in the United States Army from 1946 until 1970, when he retired with the rank of First Sergeant. His enlistment date entitled him to a World War II service medal, and he saw combat during the Korean War. After retiring from the Army he worked as Curator of the Racine Historical Museum and earned a BA from the University of Wisconsin, Parkside. He was married to Susan Seitz on 6 January 1979. In addition to Sue, he is survived by his son and daughter-in-law Tony and Mary Burke; his daughter Katherine Burke and her husband Stephen Reightley; and Katherine's daughter Taylor MacKenzie Peterson-Burke.

The focus of Bill's life was military history. In addition to the NWTA, he was a member of The Company of Military Historians. In 1987 he formed the Old Northwest Territory Area Chapter and served as its Chairman until his death. He was honored by being made a Fellow of The Company in 1988. Bill was particularly devoted to research on the Brigade of Guards during the American Revolution ­ a subject on which he hoped one day to author a monograph.

Bill was one of the charter members of the Alliance, attending its organizational meeting in 1974. Originally he was a member of Col. John Frear's (4th) Regiment of Dutchess County Militia, now the Third New York Regiment. His role as an NCO in that unit earned him the nickname "Sarge." In 1981 Bill and Sue joined the Third Regiment of Foot Guards, now the Brigade of Guards Grenadier Company, where he portrayed first a private and later a Captain.

Bill's contributions to the NWTA are so numerous as to be nearly uncountable. He was elected Commander three times: in 1977, 1978, and 1983. He served as Inspector General twice, once from 1986-1987 and once from 1990-1991. He was Courier Editor from 1979-1981 and Adjutant from 1974-1976 and in 1982. In addition, he served as Pattern Master and Music Master. In 1985 Bill was chairman of the committee which produced the present NWTA Constitution. He chaired the Grand Encampment Committees for the 15th and 20th Anniversaries in 1989 and 1994 respectively.

Until he lost much of his sight, Bill loved to publish guides for reenactors. These were both elaborate and well-researched. In 1980 he edited The Spy, vol. I, no. 1, which was a booklet of 18th century recipes. He later edited the NWTA "Book of Songs," fondly known as The Singing Spy. His most intense research went into the NWTA Duty Manual and Music Manual, which described and documented Troop, Trooping the Colours, and Parade. He also created a lengthy guide on Castrametation for reenactors laying a camp. In addition, he wrote numerous shorter papers on subjects ranging from queuing hair to Cadets in British units. All of these were illustrated with his own excellent art work.

Bill was not simply a reenactor, but also an educator in the widest sense of the word. He reached thousands of people while narrating the NWTA's daily battle demonstrations and military uniform style shows. In addition he was the consummate researcher. Never taking anything for granted, he tried always to document everything. His intellectual curiosity encompassed any subject related to the Revolution and he shared his knowledge selflessly. In fact, many NWTA units owe their very existence to his willingness to do their initial research for them. His watchword was authenticity, and his goal was to imbue others with his enthusiasm for the best, rather than the easiest, portrayal of an original unit.

Testimonials from NWTA members at his funeral frequently mentioned that Bill's greatest value to the Alliance was his vast store of knowledge and his willingness to share it with others. He will be sorely missed by the NWTA, The Company of Military Historians, his friends, and his family.

An NWTA memorial in Bill's honor is presently under discussion. Details will be forthcoming.