The Grable Foundation celebrates the life of Treasurer and Trustee Steve Burke
“They called him ‘Big Steve’ because he had the biggest heart in Pittsburgh,” television producer Michael Bartley recalls of his friend Steve Burke, the Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer of The Grable Foundation. “Steve Burke was not a household name in Pittsburgh. He didn’t want that. But he was the force behind so much good,” Michael Bartley remembers. “He was a quiet force in philanthropy.”
He loved his family – his wife Gail and two sons Chip and Peter – and then just below that was Pittsburgh. He loved the sports teams, the Steelers – he had gone to the last four Steeler Super Bowls – the Penguins, the Pirates, but, as evidenced by the close friends who surrounded him, Steve also cared for everyone in the city – no matter who they were or where they came from.
Mr. Steven E. Burke, of Fox Chapel, died on Monday January 19th, at 61 years of age.
Steve Burke grew up in Pittsburgh, graduating from Shady Side Academy and subsequently the University of Virginia. He worked in sales for Allegheny Ludlum (now Allegheny Teledyne), then Dietrich Industries in Chicago, and H.K. Porter Company, before coming back to Pittsburgh in 1991 at age 37 to work with his father Charlie in the early days of the Grable Foundation – a family foundation established by Steve’s grandmother Minnie Grable, whose husband Errett Grable created the Rubbermaid Company. The foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of children in western Pennsylvania, and Steve and his brother Charles ‘Chip’ Burke worked together with the Grable board to achieve this mission. While Chip focused on the programs, Steve’s responsibilities for the foundation were financial – though he cared deeply about the recipients of their philanthropy.
“My brother was a humble, fun-loving, and incredibly generous person who genuinely cared about people,” said Chip Burke, who currently serves as Chairman of Grable. “He was a storyteller who everyone loved to be around.”
The brothers worked closely together for decades, and William Isler, Grable Board member and President of the Fred Rogers Company, recalls an incident when Chip was beginning to raise money for the Aspinwall Riverfront Park when park champion Susan Crookston had mentioned an anonymous $10,000 donation which had been given. Chip spent considerable time trying to track down the donor, determined to discover his or her identity so he could use it to persuade people like his brother to give. “It wasn’t until weeks later that the anonymous donor was finally revealed—it was Steven E. Burke, my own brother,” Chip recalls laughing at his brother’s characteristic humility and playful side.
Steve’s wife of 27 years, Gail Burke, knew from their first blind date that Steve was the man she was going to marry: “I felt at home from our first date.” She describes him as thoughtful and intelligent, yet simple and unpretentious. “He was always wearing this quarter zip Steeler fleece all the time—they no longer make it and I spent years looking for another one…. He drove his Silver Olds 88 until he had to use a rope to keep the door closed, and they had a funeral for his late model Chevy Blazer which he also drove into the ground.”
It was important to him to keep up the legacy of the Grable Foundation and make sure it stood for the integrity and values he grew up with. And it was important that he and Gail passed those same values along to their sons.
Gregg Behr, the Executive Director of the Grable Foundation, describes Steve as a joy to work with, and as someone who would deflect attention away from himself and redirect the spotlight to the recipients of their grant making: “He wanted the teachers in the classrooms, the youth workers in the out-of-school programs, the educators in the museums to be honored and recognized because they are the ones who are looking to improve kids’ lives in meaningful ways.” While Burke was serious about the work of the foundation, Behr also describes how much Burke enjoyed visiting the sites where the foundation was making a difference, recalling Steve getting down on the floor with kindergarteners learning circuitry as part of the Children’s Innovative Project and climbing the Zero Gravity Climbing Wall in a business suit at the Carnegie Science Center Space Place.
“If there was a common theme in his interests, it was in helping children who needed it most. He judged programs and projects on how much they helped and supported young people who faced many challenges. I think he had a fundamental belief in fairness and responded to and wanted to help children to whom life had not been ‘fair,’” added Susan Brownlee, a former executive director of the Grable Foundation. “Like his father, Charlie, Steve was very much a people person and could talk with anyone. He was sincerely interested in and curious about other people and their lives. When he knew of others’ hardships or suffering, for example the training coach who lost a child, his response was to the person’s emotional needs and he listened and offered friendship as well as financial support.”
“He came back to join his family to make a difference,” recalls Colleen Fedor, the Executive Director of Mentoring Partnership, which has honored the Burke Family multiple times for their philanthropy. “He cared about education, out-of-school time, workforce development, he cared about all the pieces that surround our kids so they have what they need to be successful…. and he taught his kids to do the same.”
She notes that Steve’s son Chip, 26, who currently attends Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, serves as a young professional board member at the Mentoring Partnership. Chip is to be married in August to his fiancé Katia Wozniak, something his father was very much looking forward to.
Steve loved to travel with his family, taking pride in having visited five continents. He and his son Pete shared a sense of adventure and wanderlust. Pete was off seeing the world in Thailand after graduation when they both decided to meet each other in New Zealand so they could bike across the country together.
Steve was an avid skier and golfer and shared those passions with a close group of friends. One of his closest friends, Bill Simpson, President of Simpson McCrady, recalls Steve as being fun-loving, loyal, generous, and larger than life. “We had all these nicknames for him – ‘Big Steve,’ ‘Burkie,’ ‘the Burkinator,’ and even ‘Chef Burkie.’” Simpson explains how ‘Chef Burkie’ came from an incident when “this group of us were skiing and we all wanted to take a peek at this outrageously priced house in a ski town, and I was chosen to be the prospective buyer in this scenario with Steve as part of my entourage. So I introduced Steve to the realtor as my personal chef. The guy couldn’t cook an egg – but Steve played up the part and offered to cook up a meal for the owners of the house right there in the kitchen.”
To his friends, “’Burkie,’” Simpson continues, “was like a character out of the movie,” and that movie may have been at times reminiscent of “Animal House” in his love of fun. And one of Steve’s childhood friends, Jamie Widdoes, a fellow Shady Side student who went on to star in “Animal House” as Hoover, the President of Delta House, fondly recalls Steve as one of the best guys he ever knew. “He was the same guy in middle school as he was at 20 as he was at 40. A fun, warm guy who put a smile on your face,” says Widdoes, who just recently ran into Steve at a Steeler game in Arizona, where he coincidentally ended up sitting right behind Steve and a group of Pittsburgh friends at the game.
Steve Burke is survived by his wife Gail, sons Chip and Peter, brother Charles ‘Chip’ Burke, and mother Patsy Grable Burke.
As word spread across the community which Steve Burke loved and has touched, sentiments echoed that of Burke’s classmates Rod Frantz: “Steve was real and authentic—he was Pittsburgh.” And Pittsburgh will greatly miss him.
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