My best friend in high school and college was Mike Burke. Like many of us in the 60’s, he was a rebel. He had long, blond hair, loved the Beatles and charmingly caused trouble wherever he went. He was the leader of our pack. They say there is nothing more dangerous than a 17 year-old boy. Mike was the literal definition of that truism. He led us into more trouble than can be imagined, from seducing all the freshman girls to high speed chases with the police to eventually getting most of us to try drugs. But, it could have been a lot worse had it not been for his saintly mother, Wanda.
Wanda Burke was one of a kind. She raised three very good looking boys who tested her at every turn. At least the two oldest ones did. Mike and Troy could have had any girl they wanted in our little town. They were both extremely good looking. But, their mom stayed on top of them, even to the point of nagging until they finally succumbed to her will. Her ex-husband, Wally, was a pilot in the United States Air Force. He used up all his talents flying B-52’s but he could never transfer his brilliance to fatherhood or being a good husband. Wally was more like an irresponsible boy than a man. His sons craved his leadership and mentoring but their dad just could not deliver it to them. That job was up to Wanda.
Being a single mom in the 60’s was not easy. In fact, just being a woman during that decade was difficult enough. It was a tremendous passage of changes transforming the obedient housewife into a liberated WOMAN! But, Wanda never wavered with the times. She knew her place and like a flint set to the sun, she stayed on course. Her goal was to make certain her three boys grew up with self-respect, respect for others and a love for Jesus Christ. It was a daunting task because that is the last thing Mike and Troy had on their minds. But, Wanda would not capitulate. She had the kind of love that wore them down. She was Wanda Burke.
Saturday mornings were a time when most teenagers slept in or tried to. Eight o’clock arrived and Mike and I would be sacked out on the patio when the first blast came from the kitchen. Wanda had a voice that cut through walls, “MICHAEL! Get out of bed! Mow that lawn!” My best friend would try to cover his head with the pillow which was tantamount to snuggling up to The Who concert’s amplifier and dozing off. No way. After the third set of commands, Mike was groggily filling the mower with gas and cursing profusely. But, the grass soon disappeared to Wanda’s satisfaction. The woman was like that.
She would take her boys to classical guitar concerts, something most young boys have no appreciation for but Wanda ignored that, of course. Her sons would have culture whether they liked it or not. They got their college educations and when Mike went off track and pushed drugs out of San Francisco, it was only a matter of time before his mom’s relentless will towards Christianity finally took hold of him. Overnight, Mike went from the town drug dealer to its most famous Jesus freak. Our little town park was transformed from a place where you could buy grass or acid to an outdoor chapel. He led hundreds of young people to Christ, including me. I gave my life to Jesus at my dining room table with Mike in 1969. He became my spiritual mentor for the rest of my life. Wanda’s love for God had now reached out to me. Mike has been clean from drugs and alcohol for 41 years now. His brother Troy, is a reputable high school teacher. Also cleaned up from his past. His baby brother Randy, goes on several mission trips. All three boys turned out beyond Wanda’s dreams. She was a miracle worker. I know because I knew Mike Burke. He was a child of divorce and dysfunction and if it had not been for the lady with the shining blond hair and the bright blue eyes always believing in his potential, he would never have become the man he is today.
Wanda died two weeks ago. She was smiling when her boys said their goodbyes to her. She lived the biblical axiom, “Well done good and faithful servant.” She loved her God and she served her boys. Her heart had been broken almost completely when her husband left her. Almost. But, she realized at a very young age that her Mike, Troy and Randy needed her more than her tears did. Her spirit was resurrected with a ferociousness that typified a lioness protecting and providing for her cubs. Her life was never going to be what she dreamed about, but she was going to make certain her children would not suffer the same fate. She never remarried. She never dated. Her commitment was solely focused on three emerging young men who needed her more than they needed any human being.
Single mothers never get the credit they deserve. They have the most difficult job of all, to be a mom and a dad to their children. That is especially hard when those kids are boys. Add the most rebellious decade in our nation’s history and you will understand how remarkable Wanda Burke really was as that mom.
She will be missed. I can still hear her laugh, her shrill voice, her loving eyes and Mike and Troy, at times, wishing she was a hundred miles away from them. But, finally; they came home to a mom who loved them when they had trouble loving themselves. She did the loving, the self-respecting and the character development for all of them. She had to. She was a single mom. She was Wanda Burke.
And, she will be missed by all of us her knew her.
Especially, her three young men.
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