Keeping Bakersfield in Gear

November/December 2006

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Keeping Bakersfield in Gear

Photo: Kyle Northway

In the Central Valley city of Bakersfield, Calif., James L. Burke was a big name—financially successful and widely known as a generous philanthropist. But he may be remembered most for the little things he did. When an employee graduated from college, he’d call with congratulations. He flipped burgers at Cal State-Bakersfield barbecues. He reviewed all of his dealership’s car sales: if he saw a customer was not in good financial shape and he felt there was an excessive profit, he would rewrite the deal. “He was such a Santa Claus,” said one admirer.

Burke, who ran one of the country’s most successful Ford dealerships and contributed tirelessly to the Bakersfield community, died July 17. He was 80.

Burke was born in Bakersfield and graduated from Stanford with a degree in industrial engineering after Navy service interrupted his studies. He returned to his hometown and worked as a manager for Haberfelde Ford. In 1964, he bought the dealership, renaming it Jim Burke Ford. In 1985, he added to the franchise with the purchase of a Lincoln-Mercury dealership. Jim Burke Ford, which employs nearly 400 people, won Ford Motor Company’s highest honor, the Ford Chairman’s Award for customer satisfaction, seven times, from 1987 to 1993. Burke was awarded Ford’s Distinguished Service Citation in 1995.

His bigger impact may lie in his philanthropic efforts. He began a public-private initiative to help students in the academic “middle” find success in high school and beyond. Dubbed Project 2000 for the number of students it aimed to help, the program reduced dropout rates and increased the number of students who went to college. Burke also created The Ford Dimension, now in its 32nd year, which provides off-campus education about the private enterprise system and the practical problems of today’s business world.

A Catholic, Burke was influenced by the work of the Sisters of Mercy. (The nuns were called “Jim’s Girls”—they developed a soft spot for him after he helped them with their car problems.) Inspired by their work, Burke helped build Madison Place, a model low-income housing project, and served as the founding director of a group that contributes to the health-care needs of the community. He also served as chair of the Mercy Hospital Board of Directors. His other board memberships take more than a page to list.

But Burke also played smaller roles in charitable work. He served as a reading tutor at a local elementary school, and donated money so schoolchildren could continue visiting a local pioneer village when that program was threatened by budget cuts.

Many people wrote on the Bakersfield Californian website that they could just imagine Burke’s life now: “As I envision it,” said one man, “St. Peter smiles as the shiny new Ford whisks up to the pearly gates. A well-dressed man jumps out, extends a hearty handshake and says ‘I’m Mr. Burke, and I’m here to help.’”

Burke is survived by his wife of 56 years, Bebe; one daughter, Michele “Mikie” Hay, ’75; four grandchildren; and a sister.

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