Easy Rider, Parachutist, and Raconteur with a Distinguished Career in the Public Sector
Burke Fitzpatrick ’72 was never one to sit still, nor to stay in one place too long. An experienced parachutist, he literally has had a unique perspective on the world around him. For example, when he entered the BFS Kindergarten, the classroom and play yard looked gigantic to him. When he visited recently, he looked out of the Meetinghouse window onto the play yard. “How did it shrink so much?” he asked.
Burke had a geographically stable home life in Brooklyn. “My family bought a house in Cobble Hill in 1960 — the era before gentrification,” he recalled. “Our house on Amity Street was about seven blocks from school so, rain, sleet, or snow, it was a walk back and forth every day.”
Having had no exposure to public or parochial schools, he thought that “everyone went to Morning Meeting, everyone took naps on the Meeting House benches, and all schools had about 350 kids.” Another Friends School distinction was that “Everyone in my class went off to college – this was the early 70’s and no one wanted to live with their parents.”
Prior to that college adventure, Burke and classmate Steve Magagnini ’72 lived their own version of Easy Rider, seeing the country not on motorcycle but a beat up old Rambler station wagon. “Our parents thought it was a great idea — a 17 and an 18-year-old with $1,500 between them for the summer, no cell phone, an old car, and a paper map. What could go wrong?”
That inglorious road trip is a story unto itself, and a snapshot of that divisive time. “We were constantly hassled by cops,” he said. “Long hair and New York plates were a giveaway. We had our wallets stolen at a campsite in Colorado and had to go to the Denver police station for new IDs. This being 1972, we came away with, literally, six feet of green computer paper with DOS computer coding sent from Albany. We couldn’t wait to get pulled over after that. We’d whip out these long reams of paper and push them toward the cop and go into a long spiel about how they were computer documentation from New York. Inevitably they would throw up their hands and tell us to move along and not come back.”
The friends had memorable stopovers in New Orleans and Las Vegas and miraculously ran out of gas only once, but in a perfect spot — California’s Highway 1 overlooking the Pacific. “I still remember the sunrise and the hippies who gave me a ride in their old bread truck to the nearest gas station the next morning.”
That August, Burke made it back to Cobble Hill — poorer but wiser with $7.50 in his pocket. He entered State University of New York at Oswego in the fall, majoring in Psychology and Criminal Justice.
After graduation he remembers “knocking around Chicago a bit pretending to look for a job but mostly just going to jazz clubs. I ran out of money, again, returned to Brooklyn, again, and stumbled into a job with the Legal Aid Society as an investigator in Manhattan.”
He continued: “The same week, I got an offer for a part-time job interviewing arrestees for release without bail. That was in Brooklyn and the hours were midnight to 7:00 a.m. I also took a job working as a janitor for three apartment buildings. So, all I did was work and sleep and prepare for more work. No girlfriend, no parties, no fun and not much money.”
After a year back home, Burke headed south to earn a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from the University of South Carolina. Was there any BFS influence on his decision to focus on a career in law enforcement? “No,” he answered candidly. “My only focus on law enforcement when I was in school was avoiding them. Remember, this was the late 60’s and early 70’s. We were all about protesting the Vietnam War. The Society of Friends were the first major organization to come out and oppose the war and we were all so proud of that.”
There were, in fact, a number of Friends teachers he remembers well, expressing gratitude to his third grade teacher Ms. Shade, fourth grade teacher Ms. Watkins, and fifth grade teacher Ms. Heath. “I finally got a home room teacher who was male in sixth grade, Mr. Nisson,” he said. “He was a cool dude who could rock some Ray Bans. However, the teacher who had the most influence on me, the teacher who taught me how to write, was Martin Norregaard.”
Burke remembers Middle School English this way: “It was tedious and painful and I hated it. But, I owe my entire career in state service to Mr. Norregaard. Especially in the public sector, if you want to advance, you have to know how to read and write and that means grammar and sentence construction. He gave me those skills and for that I credit him with being the most influential teacher of my life.”
That firm academic foundation has been responsible for a number of career highlights in the public sector. “I’ve spent the majority of my working life administering federal grant programs in South Carolina for law enforcement, and victims of crime and juvenile justice,” Burke said. “I’d like to think I did some good in improving people’s lives. I also take great pride in the approximately 3,000 first jump skydiving students I have instructed. They all survived their first jump and some went on to be national champions. It’s a nice legacy to leave to the sport I love.”
How has his Quaker school background influenced him — 46 years after graduation? “Following the Friends tradition of civility and compassion for others is an accomplishment of sorts,” he answered. “A recent highlight involves my coming out of retirement. I retired in 2016 and I think most folks are forgotten when they disappear from the workplace. Soon afterwards, however, I was put on study team by the Governor’s Office to move victims of crime grants out from my old agency and into to the State Attorney General’s Office. A few months later, I got a call from the Governor’s Office saying the situation couldn’t wait and it was the unanimous request from the victim-provider community to step in and right the ship immediately. It has been a gratifying cap to my career.”
Burke added that as a secular-minded individual, “Quaker values should be part of everyone’s values. Our country and the world would be a kinder, more compassionate and more just place.” He recalled that BFS taught him many things, but first among them was a dislike of bullies in all forms, including those cops during their Easy Rider summer. “Whether they be in the schoolyard or a government, bullies are a bane on civilization and the values of decency and community. BFS and the Society of Friends knew this and gently taught us to stand up to injustice. I hope the kids at BFS today still see things that way.”