Helen Colleen Burke, 87, of Cumberland, died Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, at the Western Maryland Regional Medical Center surrounded by her family and former students, who had long ago become members of her family as well.
Born in Cumberland on Wednesday, April 28, 1930, at her family’s home on 12 Fifth Street, Colleen was the daughter of the late Stanley Solomon Burke and the late Helen L. (Shaw) Burke. In addition to her parents, Colleen was preceded in death by her sister, Helen Elizabeth Cox; her brother, Samuel H. Cox; her sister, Mary Jean (Cox) (Durrette) Diehl; her brother, William Stanley Burke; and her brother-in-law, Mort Peskin.
Surviving are her sons, Kevin Burke and Michael Colin Burke; her sister, lifelong best friend and confidant, Sue Peskin; her sister-in-law, Melva Lewis; and numerous nieces, nephews and great-grandnieces and nephews, and great-great-grandnieces and nephews.
A 1948 graduate of Fort Hill High School, Colleen was active in everything, but took particular pride in being a member of Miss Mary Calemine’s first journalism classes at Fort Hill. She graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1952 and soon embarked upon a career of doing what she was born to do teach.
Colleen was employed at the Second National Bank in Cumberland when she received the call to teach physical education at Beall High School for one year. She said she felt as though she were being paid to steal, having the opportunity to participate in and teach sports and fitness for a living.
Next she was off to Glen Burnie Junior High School where she eventually began to teach English, her true passion, and then to Stafford High School in Virginia.
She returned to Cumberland in 1958 to raise her children. Occasionally she worked as a substitute teacher, which she enjoyed doing very much. In the summer of 1967, she was informed by her mentor Miss Calemine, by this time the supervisor of English for Allegany County Public Schools, that she had become a full-time English teacher at Fort Hill High School, even though Colleen had not had the awareness of the position even being available to apply for.
For the next 25 years, teach is what she did. She taught senior English, junior English, the American novel, advanced writing, journalism, was the adviser of the National Honor Society, the Senior Class, and the school’s Pep Club, that under her leadership grew to be over 300 students strong each year. In the late 1970s Colleen became the adviser of The Sentinel, the Fort Hill school newspaper, in coming full circle to lead and teach from the position Miss Calemine had established. She also served as the English Department chair.
Under the supervision of Miss Calemine, along with other teachers from Allegany County, Colleen helped develop the English curriculum for grades 7 through 12, plus advanced writing and American novel courses.
Colleen retired from full-time teaching in 1993. She taught English for two years at Allegany College of Maryland, where she had previously served as a member of the board of trustees. She had previously served as a member of the Cumberland Housing Development in the 1960s and 1970s.
One of her grandest days and proudest moments came in October 2015 when she was selected to be parade marshal of the South Cumberland Business and Civic Association’s 66th annual Halloween Parade.
Family and friends will be received at Scarpelli Funeral Home, PA, 108 Virginia Ave. on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017, 4 to 8 p.m.
Funeral services will take place at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 400 Arch Street, Friday, Oct. 27, 2017, at noon with the Rev. Stephen F. Yelovich officiating. Friends will be received at 11 a.m.
Interment will follow at Hillcrest Burial Park, Cumberland. Serving as pallbearers will be Colleen’s nephews, Stanley Burke and Paul Diehl; grandnephews, Ryan Marchini and Josh Marchini; as well as Bill Feeney, Eugene Frazier, Donnie Nau and Rich Hawse, friends and former students who have long been family to Colleen and her sons.
In the course of the past year, Colleen discovered, then nurtured a beautiful and loving bond with her fellow patients at Western Maryland Health System’s Schwab Family Cancer Center, as well as with all of the nurses, technicians, caregivers and staff who provided our mother with care and treatment, but most importantly with encouragement, trust, support, love and friendship. As Mom said, she had discovered yet another extended, loving family, and she truly loved all who cared for her and befriended her.
Our family cannot thank the doctors at WMHS enough, particularly, Qamar Zaman, M.D., and Scott Watkins, M.D.
Dr. Zaman and Dr. Watkins took Mother to their hearts. In turn, Mother loved and trusted them both Dr. Zaman for his gentle manner, his unwavering support and his relentlessness quest on her behalf; and Dr. Watkins for his unwavering support, his relentlessness quest on her behalf and for the spirit with which he constantly challenged her with high-volume encouragement to EAT, EAT, EAT!
Upon one of the final colorful exchanges between the two, Mother simply looked up from her chair to Dr. Watkins, smiled, made her beautiful blue eyes twinkle and said, “You know you like me. You just don’t know why.”
Momentarily flabbergasted, Dr. Watkins could do nothing more than throw his hands in the air, laugh, shake his head, then nod and say, “I think that’s it. You’re exactly right.”
Our mother loved a challenge. She loved a good fight. She loved honest, loyal, loving, understanding and determined people even more. She loved baseball, politics, her family, her friends, her students, South Cumberland and Fort Hill High School more than anything in the world. She lived to read, write and teach. She lived to embrace the underdog, and to fight for him.
She fought for us all, and she taught us through her very last breath. We will learn even more from her until our last breath.
We do love her so.
Her family requests that Colleen be remembered with donations to the Western Maryland Health System Schwab Family Cancer Center, 12500 Willowbrook Road, Cumberland, MD 21502; and to the Fort Hill High School Scholarship Fund, 500 Greenway Avenue, Cumberland, MD 21502.