By Helen Weaver
When Eagle Scout candidate Brendan Bahan was looking for a service project, he found the answer close to home, at the corner of Church and Green Bay Roads. Although he had passed by this narrow triangular strip of land hundreds of times, he only recently noticed the faded and worn Park District sign in the northwest corner of the lot.
Upon closer examination, he learned that the sign and a much smaller bronze plaque were installed in the lot in 1997 to honor the memory of the only police officer in Winnetka to die in the line of duty,Officer Robert E. Burke.
On Saturday, October 21,2017, Brendan supervised a team of Scouts to replace the sign, clean out brush and dead leaves, install new landscaping and make other improvements to the site in the hopes that other Winnetkans will take greater notice of the memorial.
The memorial site, on a parcel of land owned by the Village, and known formerly as Bradstreet Park, was established through the efforts of Sergeant Glenn Florkow and approved through a resolution of the Village Council in the summer of 1997. A U.S. Navy color guard led a dozen North Shore police officers, the Winnetka police honor guard, Emerald Society bagpipers and a drummer to the dedication attended by Officer Burke’s brother and family on August 16, 1997.
40 years earlier Officer Burke had been murdered less than twenty feet away on the side of Green Bay Road. Robert Burke, a World War II navy veteran, had studied police science for a year at Michigan State University before starting police work. He served on the Evanston force for three years before joining Winnetka in the winter of 1952.
On the evening of May 23, 1957, Officer Burke, 31 years old, responded to a report of a suspicious person at the corner of Church and Green Bay. As the officer walked away from his patrol car, the man drew a gun from his pocket and fired four shots at Burke. Burke returned fire, staggered to his car and collapsed. The assailant told a witness, “I just shot the police officer,” crossed the street, and killed himself with a shot to the head. Officer Burke was later pronounced dead at Evanston Hospital.
It took the police close to a week to identify the shooter as Ronald G. Fletcher, 28, of San Francisco, CA through fingerprint analysis. The assailant’s brother described Fletcher, an epileptic, as “a quiet person who always had his nose in a book” and a “regular church goer.” Police never determined a motive for Fletcher who apparently was hitchhiking through the North Shore on a vacation trip.
A Winnetka Talk article described Officer Burke in glowing terms: “His conscientious devotion to duty, and his service to individual Winnetkans above and beyond any routine requirements earned personal tribute from the entire Village.” Chief Don R. Derning is quoted as saying that Burke “thought first and foremost of his job. He was so completely thorough in everything he did. He was the sum total of everything that represents personal and professional dedication to community service.”
The community responded by establishing a memorial fund that, within hours, had raised several hundred dollars from residents, including students at New Trier who had known Officer Burke through his participation as advisor to the “Shifters”, an automotive club, and the families of children at Hubbard Woods School where Officer Burke had been stationed on safety patrol.
Earlier on the day of his death, Officer Burke had been involved in the investigation of a traffic accident that resulted in the death of a young public works employee, Francis Azzone, age 25. Burke told his wife, Deloris that he wanted to do something to help Azzone’s 19 year-old pregnant wife and two year-old daughter. Burke’s widow honored his last wish by donating the majority of the memorial fund to Mrs. Azzone.
According to the proposal prepared by Sergeant Florkow, the dedication of Burke Memorial Park in 1997 was meant to be a “visible reminder of the sacrifice”made by Robert Burke on May 23, 1957. It would be “a visible reminder of one of the finest and bravest police officers who ever served the citizens of Winnetka.”
Twenty years later, Brendan Bahan has reminded us again of the sacrifice made by those who dedicate their lives to the service of their community.