There is a gentleness about Ed Burke; it comes through in the way he speaks, softly and with sincerity. There’s modesty and humor in him, too, evidenced in the vignettes he recounts about his lengthy career in the local legal scene, first as an attorney and then as judge in the 8th Circuit Court in Keene until his retirement last year.
But before he talks about his years on the bench, he tells a poignant story about his mother and father.
“My father was shot in the head in Guam in 1944 and lost both his eyes,” he begins. His father had been a staff sergeant with the U.S. Army’s 77th Infantry Division in the viciously fought invasion of the island to wrest it from Japanese control. In that battle, 1,700 Americans were killed and more than 6,000 wounded.
Burke’s father was shipped stateside to recuperate in a military hospital near Valley Forge, Pa. Burke’s mother, Edith, was part of a group of local women who visited with the wounded soldiers there, and met Sgt. Edward Burke, who had received glass eyes. A relationship blossomed.
“One day she came to visit, and he was gone,” Burke said, his father having been discharged back to his family’s home in New York City. Puzzled and disappointed that he’d not told her he’d be leaving the hospital, she traveled to the Big Apple to find him.
According to family lore, Burke explains, his father had left without telling Edith because he didn’t think a relationship with a man as badly wounded as himself would work.
The two married, the wedding the subject of feature stories in Brooklyn newspapers, which Burke has framed at his home. The couple eventually had four children, starting with Ed.
“It was hard; my father really couldn’t work. I became his guide everywhere,” Burke says. “That’s how I learned my way around New York. I remember we’d go to Yankee Stadium, and they had a special section for wounded veterans, and I used to listen to all their stories about the war.”
Undoubtedly, many of the men there were veterans of the Army’s 77th Infantry Division, known as the “Statue of Liberty Division” because it was made up almost exclusively of soldiers from New York City.
Burke’s father died at 38 when Eddie, as he is called by family members, was just 11 years old. His youngest sibling was two. “We always called him Daddy, because none of us got old enough to call him Dad.”
His mother never remarried, but eventually met another man, Bill Vidar, and by the time Burke was about to enter his senior year in high school, the family had moved to Rindge. Vidar had taken a job at D.D. Bean, the manufacturer of matches in nearby Jaffrey. Burke remained in New York for his senior year, staying with friends, then relocated to Rindge, to a rural setting on Mountain Road in the shadow of Mount Monadnock.
It was a big change for a young man who’d grown up in the hurly-burly of New York City.
“I didn’t have any plans to go to college,” he says, but Franklin Pierce College (now university) was just down Mountain Road. It had been started in 1962, just four years before the Burke family moved to Rindge.
“I went to the admissions office and filled out an application,” he says, handing the paperwork to a secretary.
“She asked me my name, and I said, ‘Ed Burke,’ ” and she said, ‘OK, Egbert,’ and handed my application to the admissions dean, who admitted me right there on the spot,” he says with a smile. “Franklin Pierce was then known as a ‘suitcase college’ because most of its students were from the New York City area and traveled up during the week to study, then returned to the city on weekends. The college was looking to enroll more students from New Hampshire, and I was a Rindge resident.”
He eventually transferred from Franklin Pierce to the University of New Hampshire, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.
After graduation, he enlisted in the N.H. National Guard, and did boot camp training at Fort Dix, N.J.
National Guard enlistment then meant a six-year commitment, almost all in weekend duty.
In 1972, he got a job as a bartender at the now-defunct Old Forge Restaurant in Rindge, where he met his future wife, Kathleen Kennedy, who was a waitress.
“Like a lot of bartenders do, I got tired of my boss and walked out,” he says. Through a friend who worked on the ski patrol at Loon Mountain, he got a job bartending at the resort there.
Eventually, Burke thought becoming a lawyer would be a prudent career path. “I took the LSATs [law school entrance exams] and applied to schools.”
He was accepted and enrolled at the University of Miami School of Law in Coral Gables, Fla.
He found the school’s environment both challenging and stimulating. “The students came from all walks of life; there were doctors and engineers and people from all different jobs, and I learned that whatever you had done earlier in life helped you in law school,” he says.
“There was so much reading. Someone had told me that if you had 20/20 vision when you started law school, you wouldn’t have it when you got out.”
His workload was arduous. “By my third year, I was holding down three jobs,” he says, including an offbeat one in which a company paid him to count attendees at movies. “I’d bring my law books to a theater, count people going in, and when they closed the doors when the movie started, I’d start to study.”
While in Florida, Burke transferred from the N.H. National Guard to the U.S. Army Reserve. He was assigned to a Civil Affairs Unit of soldiers whose purpose would be to travel to battle-ravaged areas and re-establish infrastructure and services. “It was made up of doctors and CPAs and lawyers,” he said. “I thought, what are they going to do with a guy like me?”
But two experiences stand out from his time in the Reserves, he says. One was processing people at the Hialeah Racetrack near Miami who were getting swine flu shots. The other was being sent to the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological and Radiological Weapons Center in Fort Devens, Mass., which is now known as the 401st Chemical Company at Devens Reserve Forces Training Area.
After earning his law degree, he returned to Rindge.
“At 30 years old, in 1978, I quit smoking and got married,” he says with a bit of a laugh. The following year, he passed the New Hampshire bar exam, and secured a job as a prosecutor for the Cheshire County Attorney’s Office in Keene, where he spent two years.
In 1981, he joined the law firm of Bragdon, Berkson and Mangones (now Bragdon & Kossayda) and two years after that, partnered with attorney Arthur Olsen for two years. Then he hung out his own shingle, his firm first located on Center Street and later on School Street. By this time, he and Kathleen were the parents of three sons, Liam, Sean and Conor.
In 2006, he was named to the bench, a process that begins with a nomination, then an application, followed with vetting by a committee made up of judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials. The governor makes the nomination, which the Executive Council must approve.
As a lawyer practicing in a smaller city, Burke says you must be ready to take on a wide variety of clients in a diverse selection of cases — what he calls the “Swiss Army knife” approach. He shied away from two types of cases because they weren’t his preference: tax law and divorces.
“In divorces, it gets so emotional. There are some people who will fight over everything,” he says.
He readily recalls the first time he donned the judicial robes. “It was in Nashua. I had to sit with another judge there and observe him. He handed me a robe, and that was it.”
He said putting on the robe for the first time felt strange. “It’s like when you first put on a wedding ring. You’re self-conscious and think everybody’s looking at you, but they’re not; you’re just a judge.”
After the Nashua judge had heard several cases, with Burke looking on, the man said to him, “ ‘OK, we got a probable-cause case next, you handle it,’ and he left.”
The day after Burke was officially placed on the Keene court, he and his wife were enjoying a weekend in Boston when the court clerk called him. “He told me we had a case. Just kidding him, I asked if it was a murder. Actually, it was.”
From the get-go, Burke felt he’d found his niche as a judge. “I felt very comfortable from the very first day on the bench.”
He explains that the legal system, and the role of lawyers and judges within it, may seem opaque to citizens, but follows a logic set by rules of evidence and precedents.
“A judge has to have the ability to read people, because many cases come down to who you believe. You cannot favor anyone, and the harder cases are where you may sympathize with one party, but they don’t have any or little evidence, so you have to rule against them.”
Burke says he carefully wrote his decisions in a way that would explain to those who lost why the decision was made — not that this would take the sting out of the ruling, but to offer a justification.
There is often an aspect of tedium for judges, too, with those in Cheshire County sometimes having to handle up to 70 arraignments in one morning, he says. But, he emphasizes, jurists must realize that each case represents a critical moment in the lives of the people involved.
“For those involved, you have to be patient; it’s their case, it’s very important to them, they may not have slept the night before, worrying about it.”
In legal cases, especially those involving juries, Burke says, there’s the concept of “primacy and recency.” “Primacy” is that people tend to believe what they first hear about an incident, and “recency” is, conversely, that people tend to believe what they’ve heard most recently. Prosecutors present their cases first to juries, with defense attorneys following.
Defendants cannot be tarnished because of previous involvements in other cases, he notes.
“Every case stands alone; you’re just dealing with the single case in front of you,” he says. “Lawyers and judges work very hard to get things right.”
Although he retired from the bench at the required age of 70, Burke continues to work part time as a judicial referee on family and juvenile cases. In that role, he can hear testimony, review evidence and draft orders, which take effect only if a judge signs off on them. Referees cannot preside over jury trials.
Burke says he has no plans to retire completely, and enjoys his new role, helping to adjudicate complex family law situations as they apply to cases of child abuse and neglect, guardianship and adoption.
“I love what I do,” he says.
Last year, he was honored at a retirement party at the old Cheshire County courthouse, in the courtroom where he had first been a prosecutor in 1979. According to a Sentinel account of the affair, he “merrily” called the mandatory retirement of judges an artifact of a time when “if you were 70 years old, you were probably dead for 20 years.”
Among those at the ceremony, attended by a large crowd of lawyers, courthouse officials and other judges, was former Superior Court judge Bernard Hampsey of Jaffrey. Hampsey retired from the bench in 2007 and knew Burke when Burke was a bartender in Rindge. It was Hampsey, in fact, who first nominated Burke for the judge’s job.
At the ceremony, Hampsey called Burke a good man, “a damn fine judge and, finally, the fastest bartender in Cheshire County.”