One day in 2003, Richard Burke laced up a pair of comfortable shoes and set out to find the perfect street corner. The big knot of traffic by Hardee’s, at the intersection of Ga. 316 and Buford Drive in Lawrenceville, seemed like a good candidate.
Sheepishly he put on his first fez, designating him a freshly minted noble of the Mystic Shrine, and began walking up and down the line of cars, shaking a plastic bucket, asking motorists for change. It was strange territory for a corporate executive. More than once Richard thought, What am I doing out here? But then he would remember: He was giving back to an organization of strangers that had rallied around his family during their most desperate days.
He was skittish at first. But every 20 minutes or so, someone would thank him for helping their child. Some drivers lifted prosthetic arms: “Thank you for this.”
Each day he made a personal challenge to beat the previous day’s take. Before long he was raking it in. Shaking buckets became his forte.
Back then, Richard had no way of knowing that a decade later, he could be on the doorstep of becoming the highest-ranking Shriner in North Georgia. And along the way, this fraternity of men in silly hats would deliver the saving grace for him and his family.
Dream house nightmare
Richard and Judy Burke first crossed paths back in 1992 at a Houlihan’s in Dunwoody.
Judy, a divorced mother of three teenagers, was on a Friday night date with a rather boring man. Behind him a tall, big-shouldered stranger caught Judy’s eye. Gosh, she thought, he’s cute.
Later, Judy called her sister. “I can’t get this man out of my mind,” she said. “Well,” her sister advised, “go back next Friday.”
Judy obliged. It worked.
Through the din of a DJ’s music, Richard Burke set his bashfulness aside and offered to buy Judy a Long Island iced tea. Judy had been rebuffing men all night in anticipation of that drink.
Richard was vice president of an auditing company and a native of upstate New York. She was a dental assistant from Tennessee, a devoted mother with a sorghum-thick twang. They agreed to meet for lunch the following week. They have been inseparable since, married 20 years next April.
In the late 1990s, Richard and his partners sold their business, and he and Judy set out to build the ideal home. In Buford, just over the Hall County line, where rolling hills and grassy fields meet Lake Lanier, they found the perfect lot, wide but not deep, overlooking open water.
The Burkes built a sprawling brick home with a vaulted ceiling in the living room and Palladian windows that frame a double-slip dock. It was purposefully huge — 6,200 square feet. With all that space, there was plenty of room for their granddaughters — 2-year-old Bailey and her baby sister, Leah — to play.
In January 2002, the Burkes finally moved into the home of their dreams. Two months later, a Grady Memorial Hospital helicopter was making an emergency landing on a boat ramp down the street.
A few minutes after 9:30 a.m. on March 13, Judy Burke put Leah in the bathtub. Above the lip of the tub were two levers. One cold. One hot.
Judy looked down at her granddaughter, a brown-eyed little cherub just learning to crawl and cutting her first teeth. The bathtub water was shallow, a couple of inches deep, tops. Judy shut the water off. Not a chance on earth that baby would drown.
She hustled into the living room to retrieve Leah’s older sister, 2-year-old Bailey, who also needed a bath. The house phone rang. It was Judy’s youngest daughter, the children’s aunt.
Judy normally would have ignored a phone call while baby-sitting; she watched the girls all week while their parents worked. But her daughter had just given birth to an underweight boy, and Judy worried that something might be wrong. She answered.
Her daughter asked a rudimentary question, and Judy cut her off: “I need to go. Leah’s in the bathtub, and I don’t want her to drown.” She headed down the hallway, a long corridor between the living room and the bathroom.
Judy nearly dropped the phone when she saw water gushing full-force into the tub. Hot water. She rushed in, turned the water off and felt a flash of relief: Leah was on her stomach, head above the water, not making a peep.
But she was red.
Judy pulled the baby from the tub and wrapped her in a towel. She bolted to the kitchen, where she placed Leah in the sink under a cascade of cold water. She dialed 911.
At first the baby was docile and alert, staring at her grandmother. Then her eyelids dropped, the shock setting in. Judy pleaded with the dispatcher: “You’ve got to hurry. She’s trying to close her eyes. You have to get here.”
Medics wrapped Leah in gauze and life-flighted her to Grady Hospital. One medic latched hold of the hysterical grandmother and told her to compose herself because the other child needed supervision.
Bailey had watched first-responders tend to her sister from the corner of the living room. Later she would wrap her dolls in toilet paper to mimic the scene.
The children’s mother, Shelly McCammon, arrived a short time later with Richard, her stepfather, with whom she worked. Shelly cut through the swarm of deputies and firefighters in the garage and grabbed her mother.
“This is not your fault,” Shelly told her mother.
Leah’s parents raced to Grady, while Richard and Judy stayed behind and packed clothes for everyone, unsure where the tragedy might drag them.
That afternoon, a doctor gave the family unexpected advice: Leah’s best chance for survival would be at Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati. A flight team was dispatched from Ohio to Atlanta.
Specialists aboard the medevac plane had grave news: Leah had third-degree burns over 80 percent of her 19-pound body. Shelly and her husband, David, kept the news to themselves. Richard and Judy were driving north all night through fog that would not lift. No sense in telling them Leah’s life was a coin-flip.
Within 12 hours of the scalding, Leah and her parents were in an ICU unit in Cincinnati.
Not long after the Burkes arrived at the hospital, a grief counselor was assigned to the family. They were given $50 meal stipends per day and informed that all of Leah’s medications and treatments would be free. Shelly offered her insurance card, but it was turned away.
For the next three days, the family did not leave the hospital.
Leah’s condition deteriorated. Her immune system could not fight off infection.
Two days shy of Leah’s first birthday, the nurses called Shelly into the room. They suggested she hold Leah, because her organs were shutting down.
Around midnight the room became crowded. Even the nurses wept. They were not used to death.
That year, Leah was one of only three children to die at a hospital that treats hundreds of burned kids yearly. For those who knew Leah, and the thousands who have come to know her since, her death was like a rock tossed into a still pond — a jolt followed by ripples of change.
It rained the whole drive home to Georgia. Somewhere above, a Shriners’ plane was flying Leah’s body back. Richard’s mind raced: Having grown up middle class, he thought service organizations were safety nets for the poor. The longer Richard had stayed at the Shriner hospital, the more he felt indebted to the organization. For the first time, he said, charity entered his heart. But Judy was a wreck. She couldn’t discuss what had happened. And though she didn’t know it, she was under investigation.
Healing takes shape
Richard was 44 years old and financially well off at the time of Leah’s death. He was transitioning into a new role as chief information officer of an Internet newsletter company he helped launch. Before Leah’s accident, all he knew of Shriners is that they toddled around parades in funny hats.
Richard began to ask around: So how do I become a Shriner?
Leah’s funeral only strengthened his interest.
Along with firefighters and police officers, fez-wearing men from the Gwinnett Shrine Club — all strangers — attended the ceremony. And they didn’t come empty-handed. They gave David and Shelly $500 to help with funeral expenses.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” David said, incredulously. “You’ve done enough.”
After the ceremony, Leah’s family began the hard work of piecing their lives back together in the void of her absence.
David had read that 80 percent of marriages dissolve when a child dies, so the family made a pact: They would not put up walls. Instead they would become tighter, undergo counseling and lean on their Christian faith.
And Richard got busy. He started hanging around Buford’s Masonic Lodge #292, inquiring about the process of becoming a Shriner.
Rules require that new members know someone in the lodge for a minimum of one year before they can begin the process of joining. New to Buford, Richard hardly knew anyone, but he discovered an acquaintance and by September had initiated his requisite “Masonic Journey,” a crash course in the history of Masons and, by extension, Shriners.
The first Shriner fraternity was established in New York City in 1872 as a fun-loving answer to the more serious Freemasons. To stand out, Shriners employed Near Eastern iconography and regalia — the red fezzes and Arabic symbols — in the way college fraternities use Greek motifs.
Eventually, though, Shriners sought more substantive causes than fraternal bacchanalia. In 1922, the first Shriners Hospital for Children opened in Louisiana to fight polio. Forty years later, the focus turned to burn care and research; the four Shriners burn facilities in the United States — part of a 22-hospital network — have emerged as leaders in that field.
As Richard studied to become a master Mason, Judy was grappling with oppressive guilt. The family still enjoyed lake outings, but her dream home had lost its luster. She pined for a new home, one without dour memories, without that bathroom, but the Burkes decided to stay for a while.
Meanwhile, a team of investigators with the Hall County Sheriff’s Department analyzed every aspect of the incident, down to the condition of the home’s water heater.
They found that within 45 seconds, the hot water pouring into the Burkes’ bathtub was 128 degrees. Bath water typically tops out at 105 degrees. Studies show 125-degree water causes third-degree burns on young children after just one minute of exposure.
The Burkes told investigators the temperature had been set before they moved in. Besides, like most people, they had no idea what constituted dangerously hot bathwater.
A few weeks after Leah died, Richard told Judy about the investigation and that the death had been ruled accidental. No charges would be filed.
Judy’s response: “Charges for what?”
The investigation wasn’t the only thing the family kept from Judy. They shielded her from broadcast news reports and Internet posts that vilified her for the accident.
“We were very protective,” Richard said. “She was very fragile back then.”
Strong-willed and articulate, Shelly agreed to speak with reporters.
“No,” she said repeatedly, “we don’t blame anybody.”
As weeks dragged into months, a feeling of helplessness and depression overtook Richard. His “crying time” was in the car, on the way to work. Judy told her husband that each time she drove across Buford Dam, she found herself wishing she’d just veer off and die.
Attending church became a struggle, because each time they walked in, memories of Leah’s funeral service rushed back. But David and Shelly vigilantly attended church and counseling. They kept busy with sports, too, regularly playing tennis.
For Bailey’s sake, David adopted the mantra: “You just gotta keep living.”
Within a month of Leah’s death, the family came together and packed away her belongings: her clothes, the angel figurines and all her beloved Teletubbies. It was a step toward healing.
Outside the family, the impact of Leah’s death was growing.
Judy’s ex-husband, John Varnell, was handling grief in a different way. As a manufacturer’s representative, Varnell had a deep Rolodex of contacts in the home-building industry, and he had experience organizing charity golf tournaments near Charlotte.
Vendors, Varnell knew, would pay mega-bucks for face-time with buyers on the golf course. Maybe, he thought, he could generate interest from celebrities, too. By fall, Varnell had organized the first benefit golf tourney in Leah’s name.
One participant was American Valve, a plumbing company whose owners were so moved by Leah’s story they started developing an anti-scald device for faucets and shower heads — a first in the industry. They wanted to effect change on a national scale, to protect the thousands of kids who are scalded each year.
They would call the product HotStop.
The Shriner way
A year after Leah’s death, Richard donned his first fez. Colleagues noticed that his commitment to charitable work was extraordinary from the get-go. “Richard’s got a heart of gold,” said Yaarab Shrine director, Jim Williams.
At the Yaarab Shrine on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta, there is a Hall of Fame downstairs with walls lined with head shots. A younger Richard smiles on the bottom row. In the Shrine’s 80-year history, he was enshrined quicker than any other member. How? By raising $50,000 in only two years, mostly by shaking buckets in the street.
Richard’s fundraising prowess helped lift him to Gwinnett Shrine Club president in 2006, but his sights were set higher. He wanted to land a seat on Yaarab Shrine’s divan — the seven-member board of directors; the campaign would take incredible commitment.
The Burkes blazed a zigzagging path to 56 Shrine clubs and units across North Georgia. They hobnobbed at parades and picnics, glad-handed at meetings from Rockmart to Hiawassee. After a yearlong campaign, Richard won the bottom-line office of recorder in 2008. He aimed to ascend one position on the divan each year, until reaching the Shriners’ version of a CEO, the potentate. That kind of ambition takes nonstop volunteerism.
Friendships fell by the wayside. The Burkes were absent from Christmas parties and trips to Nashville with their circle of friends. They missed weddings. The grandchildren played sports without them watching in the stands.
Through it all, Richard viewed his commitments not as sacrifice but as giving back, clinging to the old Shriners’ motto: “Having fun and helping kids.” After years of counseling, and with a newfound purpose, Judy felt alive again.
Emotionally, though, the Shriner route was never easy. Through their philanthropic work, the Burkes are asked to relive the life and death of Leah over and over again.
Tragedy begets charity
Each year, the weekend before Father’s Day, the Burke family travels to Charlotte, where they volunteer at the Shriners Celebrity Golf Classic. The event has raised more than $4 million for the Cincinnati hospital, where a plaque bears Leah’s name.
At the tourneys, Leah is an indelible presence. Her face adorns placards set before each gala dinner. A video with her story is sometimes played for the room. Varnell, the tourney founder and Leah’s grandfather, still has to slip outside when the video comes on.
As for the HotStop, it rolled out in 2006 at Lowe’s stores nationwide. The protective device — nicknamed the “Leah Valve” — shuts off hot water, beginning at 116 degrees. At its peak, more than 100,000 HotStop valves were sold per year, though sales have recently nosedived.
“(Parents) will put up gates at the top of their stairs, install cabinet locks and cover electrical outlets, but scald prevention is a bridge too far,” said American Valve owner Seth Guterman.
Until she became too busy with Shriner functions, Judy organized an annual Fun Fest, a children’s carnival, with all proceeds going to the Cincinnati hospital. To publicize it, Judy gave interviews and talked to strangers about Leah. Each time it hurt, but talking mended, too. The story evolved into a means to teach and caution others. Judy says the ending, given the reach of Leah’s legacy, is a happy one.
Still, Richard recently walked away from an interview about Leah at a Shriner function, and looked at Judy. “It doesn’t get any easier, does it?” he said.
These days, Richard volunteers about 30 hours per week. He logs up to 15,000 annual “Shrine miles” on his personal vehicle. No gas stipend. No salary. Just a few free dinners each year. And a new fez.
Richard is determined to push annual fundraising tallies back to the pre-Recession $1 million mark.
One sweltering August morning in downtown Alpharetta, spectators crowded the herringbone-brick sidewalks for a parade honoring veterans. Shriners drove 50 vehicles in the parade, including a vintage Ford Model A that split in half and another one that belched confetti. In tiny dune buggies, they spun circles around traffic cops.
Behind the lead car, in a Cadillac Eldorado, Richard — wearing Maui Jim sunglasses and his triple-jewel fez — nonchalantly waved to the crowds. As chief rabban, he is second in line to the potentate. At this point, parades are second nature.
Former Potentate Gene Bracewell says he will nominate Richard to the top position of potentate next year, potentially making him leader of all North Georgia Shriners after a group vote.
“Richard is a motivator,” Bracewell said. “He works by example.”
Less than two years after Leah died, Shelly and David had another girl. A little boy followed. Bailey, now 14, has become one of Georgia’s top 100 tennis players in her age group.
Shelly isn’t the 60-hour-week, career-driven accountant she used to be. She works from home mostly, as an account manager for CoZzzy Comfy, a company that sells linens to raise money for nonprofits, including 30 Shrine temples.
She coaches basketball and softball; David coaches their boy’s baseball team. They spend the majority of their time with the kids, cherishing every skinned elbow, every backseat tussle.
“(Tragedy) changes you,” said Shelly, 39. “It puts life in perspective.”
Over time, living in their dream home became enjoyable again for Richard and Judy, now 56 and 60, respectively. But Shrine responsibilities have kept them too busy to savor it. They’ve tried to sell it over the years, gradually dropping the asking price to about $1.2 million.
For Judy, the home carries a tarnish that can’t be wiped away, and each time she walks into the bathroom, she thinks of Leah. When talking about her granddaughter, her voice still compresses and the tears still stream.
But the Burkes aren’t ones to dwell on sorrow. Their altruistic urges are too strong. So they go. They do. They dance.
One recent Saturday night in the Yaarab auditorium, the Shriners were raffling off a Harley-Davidson, a big chrome bull near the stage. This brought a crowd of pony-tailed bikers and Shriner faithful, all paying $100 for prime rib dinners and a chance at the motorcycle. Richard worked the massive room, dishing out hugs and handshakes.
Around 10 p.m., the lights dimmed, and the band played “Jailhouse Rock,” which launched Richard into some semblance of the Twist. Stitched on his sleeve was the emblem they call “The Silent Messenger” — a Shriner holding a girl in his left arm, her crutches in his right. When Judy joined Richard on the dance floor, they held hands and laughed, the music pulsing around them. She twirled and twirled and never let go of his hand.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Josh Green was working for another publication when he met Judy Burke several years ago while covering the carnival she organized to benefit Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati. Moved by the story of her granddaughter’s accident and the fundraising efforts that grew out of it, Green was compelled to examine what the ensuing years have been like for the family and how they have healed. He was unaware at the time that Burke’s husband had become a Shriner. For the story, Green interviewed the family several times, attended Shriner events and examined police records. He was intrigued by the idea that such a tragic event could effect so much change. It is a powerful story of redemption and hope.
Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor
About the reporter
Josh Green is a freelance journalist and fiction writer who lives in Atlanta with his wife and daughter. An Indiana native, Green’s newspaper journalism has won top awards in the Hoosier state and in Georgia, where he relocated to work for the Gwinnett Daily Post in 2007. His debut book, “Dirtyville Rhapsodies,” a short story collection set mostly in Atlanta, was published in May to critical praise.
Next week: Atlanta’s food service community helps ailing chef fulfill dream of restaurant ownership.