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.
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.