Bill Burke, legendary Irish banker and former New York City Parade Grand Marshal in 1988 has died unexpectedly, aged 76.
Throw a stone in Manhattan and chances are you will hit an Irish business that Bill Burke helped finance and set up. He was that legendary old-style banker, one who did deals on trust and his intimate knowledge of the community he served for decades.
A Bill Burke handshake was as good as a signed contract. Thousands of small business owners over the years have come to know him as a banker, but also a friend. “If Bill Burke didn’t exist we’d have to invent him,” said one community leader.
So how did a rural Irish emigrant president of a bank and a leader of his community, including becoming grand marshal of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1988 end up such a success?
The story begins in 1942. Burke was born in Tubbercurry, a small town in County Sligo. He was one of 11 children.
When he turned 18 he felt there was very little future for him in Ireland. His father encouraged him to join the family garage business, but this didn’t interest Burke so he boarded a plane for JFK and the Big Apple.
“As soon as I got the Leaving Certificate (high school graduation exam), I was out of there,” he remembered in a 2007 interview with the Irish Voice.
A few days off the boat and Burke was with his brother-in-law in a Chinese laundry when the clerk in the store asked him where he was working and he replied he didn’t have a job yet and would do anything. The guy said to come see him on Monday and he’d give him a job.”
Burke explained that this gentleman turned out to be an executive of a bank and was helping his parents that weekend in their laundry. “I went in that Monday, and before I knew it I had a job in the operations department of Franklin National Bank,” he recalls.
Not having a notion about the banking world, Burke rolled up his sleeves and got to work.
“I was a quick learner and really enjoyed this new world.”
After successfully hacking through the thicket of rhetoric and facts about the banking world, Burke was offered a place on the bank’s executive training program.
At the incredibly young age of 20, Burke got a promotion to assistant vice president at Franklin.
Some years later, Burke capitalized on another opportunity and transferred to Barclays Bank where he took up a more senior position.
“I was a key guy at an American bank (Franklin), and then I went in as a full vice president to Barclays,” said Burke proudly.
He spent a few years with Barclays and in 1977 the Bank of Ireland, which had offices in New York, decided to open up a branch in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue. Burke was persuaded to head up the challenge.
“I accepted the offer. It was great working with Irish people,” he says.
Burke became one of the best-known faces in the community, and when elected grand marshal of the New York parade in 1988 he proudly led hundreds of thousands up Fifth Avenue while delighted relatives and family looked on.
“A thrill of a lifetime,” he says.
However, after a number of years, fear of instability in the banking industry took over, so like many businesses at the time Bank of Ireland closed down shop in Manhattan.
During the last few months at Bank of Ireland, Burke met with majority shareholder of Country Bank, Joe Murphy.
“He said, ‘I hear your bank is closing up. How would you like to come to work for my bank?’ I said, ‘Where is it,’ and he said ‘Carmel,’ and I said, ‘Oh yes, I would love to go to work in California.’”
Unfortunately for Burke the Carmel Murphy was referring to was in upstate New York. “He wanted me to go from midtown Manhattan to upstate New York but at the time beggars couldn’t be choosers,” Burke recalls.
Burke suddenly realized that Country Bank was for him. “I really liked their approach and knew I’d fit in immediately.”
It wasn’t long before Burke was opening up branches in White Plains, Woodlawn, Scarsdale and Manhattan.
“It’s the fastest growing small bank in the nation, and we are not pushing it to be,” described Burke at the time
Burke made it to the president’s chair at Country Bank’s head office on Park Avenue.
Bill is survived by his wife Aileen and their two sons, Ross and Riley. His four children from his first marriage, William, Elizabeth & Paul Vogt, Michelle & Damon Lattuga and Robert. His six grandchildren Conor and Ryan Vogt and Devon, Dylan, Damon and Kathleen Lattuga.
Also, is sisters Winnie, Bridie, Mary and Ann and his brothers Matty, Marty and Colm and their families.
Bill’s first wife Kathleen passed away in 1991.
Some time ago Burke went to visit his brother with Alzheimer’s, in a nursing home.
“My brother would tap everyone on the shoulder and say, ‘Do you know who this man is? He was the grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade and not only that, but he is the president of a bank.’
“I was enjoying this and the various compliments and then he comes to a guy and said, ‘Do you know who this man is?’ The man turned around and said, ‘No but tell him to go to the front desk and they’ll tell him who he is.’”
Bill Burke never needed that question asked in Irish circles in New York. Quite simply, everyone knew who he was.
May he rest in peace.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
Mass at Holy Name Church in New Rochelle at 10 a.m. on Friday, June 15th.
In lieu of flowers - donation to Rory Staunton Sepsis Foundation at rorystauntonfoundationforsepsis.org