Man's first sick day in 60 years was one of his final days

Kathy Uek

During James Burke's 60-plus-year career, he called in sick once - his last day of work before he entered the hospital. He died several days later, on Monday.

For James W. Burke Sr. work was his play.

He enjoyed working. It enabled him to provide for his family.

At the hospital, when Burke's daughter-in-law Jean asked him if he had called in sick, he replied, ``I did, and it broke my heart.''

Burke began his career working at Roxbury Carpet.

``But when he heard he could make 25 cents more an hour at the former Regional Construction Co., he went there,'' said his son, Stephen of Framingham.

He started as a laborer at the construction company, most recently located in Sudbury. Thirty-five years later, Burke retired as president, according to his daughter, Carol Naughton of Holliston.

When Burke's children were young, he also worked as a night watchman on the weekends at the former Anchor Motor Freight.

``Sometimes on Christmas we had to wait until noon or 1 o'clock to open Christmas presents because he was working,'' said his daughter.

Every Sunday evening Burke's wife and children brought dinner to him while he worked.

``And when it was our birthday, we got to sleep in the station wagon inside the garage hanger,'' said Naughton. ``It was wonderful. No one else we knew got to do that.''

During Burke's last days in the, he expressed concern for his family, according to his son, Stephen.

``You play the cards you're dealt,'' Burke remembers his father telling them. ``Don't worry about me, I'm OK.''

At 17, before graduating from Framingham High School, Burke enlisted in the Navy to serve in World War II. He received his diploma while onboard the ship.

``It was World War II, and he had an opportunity to do the right thing,'' said his daughter.

Burke served in Okinawa.

``After the war he went into the caves where some of the Japanese lived,'' said Burke's sister, Dorothy Wright of Sudbury. ``They didn't know the war was over and they came out fighting.''

After the Saxonville resident retired, he did not want to simply sit around. So he went to work mowing lawns and doing maintenance at Sandy Burr Country Club in Wayland.

Even nine-hour transfusions to combat myelodysplasia - formerly known as preleukemia - didn't stop him from working, said his daughter.

``He set up his appointments after work so he wouldn't miss any time away from work and then he'd be back at work the next day,'' she said.

Burke passed his strong work ethic onto his four children.

When his offspring purchased their cars, Burke taught them how to maintain them.

``My sister Ellen repairs her own brakes,'' said Naughton.

He enjoyed people, family, and the little things in life, she said. ``He was a very basic person - a man of conviction and emotion. He didn't always have the language to express his feelings, but you knew they were genuine.''

He was always thinking about how could help someone, said his sister Dorothy Wright.

After the husband of his sister Marguerite Urgotis died, Burke was there at a moment's notice when she needed help with the carpentry or plumbing.

He was hardcore, said his son, Stephen. ``He taught us the value of hard work. If he found out you were bagging a day of work for nothing, you were in trouble.''

A funeral Mass will be celebrated today, at 10 a.m., at St. George's Church in Framingham.

Burial will follow in Edwards Cemetery, Saxonville.

Funeral arrangements are under the direction of Eugene J. McCarthy and Sons Funeral Home, Framingham.

Memorial donations may be made to the American Cancer Society, 30 Speen St., Framingham, MA 01701.

Kathy Uek of The MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News can be reached at 508-626-4419 or kuek@cnc.com.