Bob and Brenda Burke: Visalia’s Coolest Teachers

Bob and Brenda Burke pose for a photo at their Three Rivers home. The couple, who both taught at Visalia’s Mt. Whitney High, spent a combined 70 years at the school before their retirement in 2013. Brenda Burke now runs her own small business, and Bob Burke is penning novels. The couple celebrates their 40th wedding anniversary this month. Dave Adalian/Valley Voice
Bob and Brenda Burke pose for a photo at their Three Rivers home. The couple, who both taught at Visalia’s Mt. Whitney High, spent a combined 70 years at the school before their retirement in 2013. Brenda Burke now runs her own small business, and Bob Burke is penning novels. The couple celebrates their 40th wedding anniversary this month. Dave Adalian/Valley Voice

In 1976, a legacy began at Mt. Whitney High.

The year America celebrated its bicentennial was also the year Brenda Burke began teaching home economics part-time on the Visalia campus. Her husband Robert’s hard-to-get full-time teaching job at the city’s school for at-risk students, Sequoia High, had brought the freshly graduated newlyweds to town.

They had just finished earning preliminary teaching credentials at Humboldt State University. Robert had been a history major, and getting teaching jobs in that field was a near impossibility at the time. Luckily for the would-be bridegroom, his knowledge of seafood gave him an edge he’d need.

“I applied as far away as Nebraska. I wanted to get married, and I got an interview,” he recalled. “Don Grady, the Redwood (High School) principal, interviewed me. He went up to Humboldt. I think the reason I was a finalist was I told him where to get crab for 80 cents a pound.”

A Campus Fixture

The Burkes, who were childhood sweethearts, grew up in Long Beach, a fact that also helped Robert land the job he’d been told by a school counselor he’d never get. He could talk to Grady as an insider about a pair of brothers who’d also grown up in Long Beach and were now basketball stars at Fresno State.

“We talked basketball, that and crab, and I get a call saying I’m one of three finalists,” Bob, 62, said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

He landed the job at Sequoia, and joined his wife at MWHS in 1980. Brenda had by then moved to a full-time position. That notably made them the first married couple to teach on the same campus in the Visalia school system. Bob caught the brunt of the backlash.

“The HR person said, ‘Well, if you guys get divorced, you’re going first because she was there before you.’ And, I go, ‘OK,’” Bob remembered, causing laughter around the table.

“He had a lot of questions about ‘What if…?’ because we were both on the same campus,” Brenda, 61, added.

“Yeah,” Bob agreed, “but it worked.”

The couple spent their working lives together, a fixture on a campus that serves about 1,500 students each year, and they would eventually retire together. When they did, it was after a combined 70 years at Mt. Whitney. The school, which was constructed in 1952, was only 61 years old when Bob and Brenda Burke left it in 2013.

‘They Were Easygoing, Very Calm’

While there have been other teachers in Visalia whose careers ran as long as the Burkes’, few were as popular with their students. There’s nothing especially captivating about the subjects they taught–Brenda instructing students in sewing, balancing check books, cookery and child care, Bob covering social science, history and psych. It’s likely students sensed something else the couple shares, something exemplified in stories they tell about their own education.

Brenda was born partially deaf. She excelled at sports and considered a career as a PE teacher, eventually deciding it meant too much time in the sun. She also had a penchant for numbers and problem-solving, but by her junior year in high school she’d taken the most advanced classes in mathematics her school offered.

“So then I had room for the ‘easy’ class,” she said. “I took a home-ec class, and all of a sudden the teachers there were unbelievable. They were easygoing, very calm, very concerned about you. They just really got involved in what you were doing in life and how you felt.”

Growing up in what she calls a “you-always-respect-your-elders type of family background,” she found the contrasting attitude not just refreshing, but eye-opening. Brenda switched her high-school major, making math a minor emphasis behind home economics, and her career was also decided.

“I said, ‘You know what, this is problem-solving, but this is problem-solving you can do every day in your life,’” she said. “I found myself becoming more relaxed because of the teachers, and I said, ‘I want to do this for somebody else.’”

The Bigger Jerk

Bob’s early education was also a study in contrast. He started his middle school instruction at a campus later experience taught him was a toxic environment, but he finished in a very different place. It was a story he related to students in his classroom when discussing motivation.

“I went to a junior high that academically I think it was fine, but it was run very poorly,” he said. “Basically, it was all run on negativity. ‘How can we ding you for chewing gum? How can we ding you for this? For that?’ Then the students, of course, responded in kind. The bigger jerk you were in class, the more popular you were.”

Burke had the response typical for a normal 13-year-old, and his grades suffered because of it. Then he changed schools, attending Hill Junior High. There, academic performance was key to popularity. Again, Bob followed the pack. His grades soared.

“Hill was run, basically, let me help you out. It kind of shaped me a little bit later on in teaching,” he said. “It was huge to me, because I looked at authority in a different way, in a more positive way, because, sure, they’re your principal, they’re your teacher, but they’re actually here to help you learn, as opposed to…” He gestures with a dismissive wave.

Bob was also cooler than most of his fellow teachers. He coached JV baseball, played basketball with students at lunch in the open gym, and sported a full beard and wore jeans and flannel shirts while the other teachers wore ties and coats. He also played Grateful Dead bootleg tapes before his classes, and a picture of the band’s guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia hung on the wall.

The attraction went both ways. Students like Bob, and he likes them.

“I discovered when I started student teaching how much I enjoyed being around kids,” he said. “I was attracted to the ones that were smart but didn’t see the value, didn’t see cause and effect, tried to turn that around, and the ones who were, you know, having a difficult time for reasons other than schooling. I was always drawn to the at-risk kids and the intelligent ones who didn’t see the value and what that could give you down the road.”

Bob knows that experience first-hand.

“I’ll just say I had a pretty dysfunctional family, and it’s hard to see beyond that when you’re living that kind of life,” he said.

Bob was named the 2011 History-Social Studies Teacher of the Year by the San Joaquin Valley Council for Social Studies.

Home Life

While spending their working lives in Visalia, the Burkes made their home in Three Rivers, where they still live today in a house with a breathtaking view of the Mineral King Fork of the Kaweah. The couple has two children, Katie and John, and knowing they’d be able to spend summer breaks with their family when they had one was one another reason the Burkes found their way into teaching, Brenda said.

“That’s what attracted me to Bob too. Family’s very important to us,” she said. “The advantage of being a teacher is you get the time off with your kids.”

The Burkes celebrate 40 years of marriage this month.

Now that he’s retired, Bob serves on the board of directors of the Three Rivers Historical Society and Museum. It’s far from his first stint in such a position.

“When we got up here, I thought, you know this is a really unique place, and I have some close friends who feel like I do (that) if you’re in a place, a small place like this, you should be a part of it,” he said. “And, some things were just for fun. I played softball for 27 years up here. It’s the reason my knee’s screwed up.”

Bob also spent 21 years on local school boards. He was elected to the Three Rivers School District’s governing board in 1989, serving until 2002. He was then elected to the Woodlake Union School District for a four-year term, after which he served again on the Three Rivers board for another four-year term.

“In a small town things get done if people are volunteering,” Bob said. “And, it’s fun.”

Through the Redwood Curtain

The Burkes spend a lot of time on the road. Their busy calendar is peppered with annual trips, including a yearly Father’s Day visit to the Arcata Bay Oyster Festival. The nine-hour drive to the home of their alma mater is typical of the Burkes’ road trips. While Bob does the driving, Brenda spends the time knitting.

“So, I started a business called Road Knitting,” she said. “I have my purses in just a couple stores here.”

She collects yarn on their trips then uses it in her creations. Her pieces are also regular items at Three Rivers fundraisers. Much of Bob’s time on road not spent behind the wheel has been spent collecting research for his fiction.

From at least high school on, Brenda said, Bob wanted to write a book. When he finally began in 2004, he drew from his college days for inspiration. Bob worked at a nursery in Eureka staffed by “ex-cons and all the crazies” while at Humboldt, and his experiences there and the people he met form the core of his novel Through the Redwood Curtain. The story explores the culture clash between an increasingly less isolated community of conservative loggers and the influx of liberal college students and escapees from the Bay Area’s hippie scene in the early 1970s. It is available through Amazon.com.

Bob is contemplating a second novel, one focused on the Long Beach of the couple’s youth.

“I want to write about post-War Long Beach,” he said. “I want to write about all the vets coming back and how the city transformed with all the GI Bill housing, because that’s what we all lived in.”

Get Back Truckin’ On

When they’re not enjoying the small-town charm of Three Rivers they help preserve, the Burkes are navigating America’s blue highways, those smaller, less traveled roads that run alongside the major thoroughfares. They just finished a 2,000-mile trip to Washington, including the discovery of another route they’d never traveled and may or may not ride again. Already they’re planning the trip they’ll take to mark their 40th wedding anniversary.

“Alaska was the first idea,” said Brenda. “We’ll do that later. We’re really very easygoing.”

Bob, of course, agrees.

“Our plans are really very simple,” he said. “We want to keep traveling. We always like going on new roads.”

Maui is off the table, but they’re still talking about a houseboat trip. And there’s always their annual summertime boogie boarding trip to the Central Coast to consider. Bob’s skiing days are behind him, though, thanks to that bum knee.

40 thoughts on “Bob and Brenda Burke: Visalia’s Coolest Teachers

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  1. Love you Mr and Mrs Burke! You two helped me get through high school. Mr Burke giving me the confidence and help I needed to get my grades up freshman year and Mrs Burke to help me appreciate what I had in life so much more. I learned so much from you two. I’m grateful I got to graduate high school with you guys!

  2. I enjoyed both as teachers when I went to Whitney, he with Criminal Law and her with Home Ec. They were the favored teachers of all.
    Then my son had the pleasure of learning from both of them, which was really cool! Thank you guys for the great memories!!!

  3. Mr. And Mrs. Burke were always the laid back classes. When your having a bad day and first period was terrible but you had home ec with Mrs.Burke the following period, you knew it’d go by calm and easy going. Vis versa if it was Mr.Burke.
    It’s great to see how they’re both doing good and enjoying retirement. They deserve every bit of it. Iam glad I got to experience some of my high school years with them. They were awesome and never in a bad mood. Just the type of teachers you wanted.
    Keep on Keepn’ on! You deserve the world you two. ❤️

  4. The only two teachers that made a big impact on my life. Mrs. Burke treated me as if I was one of her own kids whether if it was feeding me when I was too broke to buy school lunch or sowing my tie before our first varsity football game. They both always believed in me more than I believed in myself as a kid. They always wanted the best for us and I’m glad they waited to retire the year all us kids from freshman academy graduated. I hope they’re doing well and enjoying retirement

  5. Bob and Brenda were a wonderful influence on my life and two of the most unique teachers I’ve ever had. Bob also coached Freshman baseball when he first arrived during my freshman year – it was through that experience that made me want to take his psych class. I also took Brenda’s home-ec class – I took that class for one reason, and one reason alone, because she was teaching it. A huge thank you to both of you.

  6. Mr. Burke was THE COOLEST/NICEST teacher I ever met!!! I am glad I had him as a teacher. Love and miss you Mr. Burke!!

  7. I loved both of you when I was in your classes ! I especially loved fha!! You two made mw a better place !

  8. I took a Psychology elective taught by Mr. Burke. It was so fun and when I first fell in love with Psych, and I ended up getting a BA in psych and becoming a teacher. They were loved by all on campus!

  9. Mr. And Mrs. Burke,

    Thank you for caring about all of your students. You inspired me to turn to teaching. Mrs. Burke, thanks you for helping me through one of the hardest times in my life, when my dad died, you gave me time, understanding and respect as an individual. I loved being that “helper” to you. Safe travels.

  10. Mrs Burke helped my sister & I through difficult time. She nicknames us “Sister Rachel and Sister Tara” She had a big impact on both if us. I had Mr Burke as well. They both are amazing people. I hope they know how many lives they touched !!

  11. Mrs Burke helped my sister & I through difficult time. She nicknames us “Sister Rachel and Sister Tara” She had a big impact on both of us. I had Mr Burke as well. They both are amazing people. I hope they know how many lives they touched !!

  12. Thank you Mr Burke for your unique style of teaching and the way you managed to see students for their unique abilities.
    You made a difference for myself and many others.

  13. I had Mrs Burke for Home-Econ at Mt Whitney! She was an amazing instructor and it was my favorite class! I still talk about it to this day and I have been out of school for 37 years. Thank you Mrs Burke!

  14. The Burkes were very special to so many. It is funny how the article mentions what made Mrs. Burke begin teaching (the compassionate home ec. teachers), because the two of them did exactly the same thing for me. They were the reason I even went to school (I was a terrible student); their openness and honesty was appreciated. I became a high school teacher not just because I love my subject and want to share that, but because I enjoy teens and think they deserve someone who cares for them, as future adults and as individuals.
    Thanks Mr. & Mrs. Burke for being amazing people and inspirations. Congratulations on your anniversary, and your happy retirement!!

  15. Mr. burke was the funniest history teacher ever. He has a kind heart and gets really involved with his students. I loved having him as a teacher. He even help me push through some of my problems I had with other students in the class due to high school silliness.but all in all I got a high grade in his class. You are awesome Mr. burke

  16. Loved the Burkes. Best teachers ever. So few I can look back on with wonderful memories.
    Love you both!
    Thank you!

  17. Mrs Burke you were such an amazing person just to be around. I had you for 3 out of my 4 yrs at Whitney and I loved your classes..
    I don’t think you realize just want a imprint you left on so many of us. I’ve wondered so often of what you are up to since graduating in “92”. Thank you for being “that” teacher for me and so many others.
    So glad you are both doing well. You are thought of and talked about so often I think it might surprise you both..
    Thank you

  18. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Burke for being amazing teachers and helping me through high school. You guys are the true definition of how teachers should teach and want to teach. Thanks for graduating with the class of 2013!

  19. They were a part of my favorite teachers! Mrs Burke was my child development teacher and Mr. Burke was my psych teacher. Awesome awesome teachers! I graduated Mt Whitney in 1996. Love you both!!

  20. Mr. and Mrs. Burke were my two favorite teachers in high school. I will always and forever remember them fondly and the impact they had on my life. Not only were they amazing teachers but the most wonderful people. Mr. and Mrs. Burke, if you are reading this I want you to know that you are both such a pile. <3

  21. Mama Burke! Congratulations on forty years!!! We still tell the stories of your patience for us boys in your class:) Love ya, Larry Aiello

  22. Mrs. Burke helped me through some tough times in the 80s…and I never thanked her. THANK YOU!!!!

  23. The Burk’s were then and still are my favorite teachers. I had both of them more than once through my high school career. So glad to see they are both doing what they love and most of all doing it together. Love you both!!! Happy Anniversary!

    Xo

  24. I majored in Psychology beacause Mr. Burke’s Psych class was fun and interesting and made me feel like I could be a good student. I’m now less than two weeks away from receiving my doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Thanks Mr. Burke!!!

  25. Mr. Burke was so easy to get off subject. We’d be talking history and next thing you know someone would mention baseball, basketball whatever & history was history. This was a nice stroll down memory lane

  26. I loved the Burkes had Mr Burke my Sophomore year then Mrs Burke my Jr and Sr year I also did FHA with Brenda and loved it she also thought me a lot of what I know today. Thanks for being the best.

  27. You two were the most influential teachers. You believed in making a difference in each one of your students lives. You certainly had a huge impact on my life Mrs. Burke, the year I had you for a teacher in home economics was the year I became more involved with Mt.Whitney’s on campus activities. I was nominated to be an active leader and a homecoming princess. These things that I would have never dreamed of happening, happened because you and my friends believed in me and it was an amazing experience during my senior year. I have always treasured those special memories. I am a first grade teacher and I love being a positive influence in my students lives just as you Mr. Burke and Mrs. Burke were to all of your students. Thank you! What a blessing you both were to so many and still are! We love you! ❤️

  28. We would call Mrs Burke by her first name, & she’d politely correct us,”it’s Mrs Burke to you”. It was ongoing joke.
    I also remember she would even let someone like me take roll.
    She was just that cool.
    Good write up on great people.

  29. This article just made my day! Both Bob and Brenda were such a positive influence! They are two teachers I remember the most. Thank you for your putting your hearts into your teaching♡♡

  30. I had Mr. Burke for Psychology, He was my favorite teacher, I remember him playing Grateful Dead before class, and his Jerry Garcia poster on the wall. Always very easy going. The only time I ever say him get upset is when he has the class make a commercial. A few classmates and i made a commercial and he showed it in class. After showing it we asked him if he saw the subliminal message. His face went blank and called all of us aside and made us show it to him. It wasn’t anything bad we just wanted to show the class how you can be manipulated with you knowing it. We got an A on the project. Thank you Mr. Burke!

  31. Whenever asked, who was one of your favorite teachers, Mrs. Burke comes to mind. Having her for a teacher for home-ec, she was a great mentor for FHA. I remember going to Oakland for competition & being her teachers aide. She made it fun to go to school! Happy anniversary to you both! Glad to hear that you are doing well!

  32. Too bad Bob couldn’t hit a pitch to right field, he would have led the league in RBIs. It was a pleasure playing softball with you in 3Rs.

  33. Mrs. Burke! Everyday 1st period is not the time for a student who smokes weed ..lol every morning !
    Mr. Lee, good morning watch your tardies please and why your eyes so red, allergies? Yes ohhh hmm ok
    And my very last day of school as a senior You got me ! You said Oh thank God last day of school are you excited!? Ohh I know I am see ..who’s eyes are redder yours or mine…I lost it that was such a funny joke and one of my favorite memories.
    Hey Mr.B can’t ever forget you representing me on a discipline appeal board and pitching the 1 game suspension on Homecoming Game would best serve it’s lesson.
    Mrs. Mann agreed and dropped the Cowhide 2nd suspension/
    God Bless you in your retirement

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