By Ray O’Hanlon for the Irish Echo
One of the New York Irish community’s most prominent business and banking leaders of recent decades, Bill Burke, has died aged 76.
Burke, the Grand Marshal of the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1988, was a native of Tubbercurry, County Sligo and was immensely proud of his roots in the county.
Burke had a distinguished career in banking that included a number of years with Bank of Ireland when it had a flagship office on Fifth Avenue.
His peak career years, however, were with Country Bank where he rose to the rank of president.
Fellow Sligoman and Irish Echo reporter Harry Keaney penned this profile of Bill Burke some years ago and it is reproduced here below.
The day after Bill Burke’s arrival in New York almost 40 years ago, he accompanied his brother-in-law to a Chinese laundry to drop off some shirts. From the wash of conversation that Saturday tumbled the 18-year-old Sligo lad’s start in banking.
“A Chinese guy, Richard Chu, was working on the weekend in the laundry — it was run by his parents — and he asked me what I wanted to do,” Burke recalled. “I was just after coming out from Ireland and he asks me what I want to work at. Of course I said, ‘anything.’ ”
“How about a job in a bank,” inquired Chu, adding that he himself also worked in a bank that was hiring.
“Sounds good to me,” Burke replied as Chu gave him his business card.
The following Monday, Burke had an interview arranged with Bank of America, at 41 Broad St., in the Wall Street area. On Tuesday he began work.
After four years of night school, Burke graduated from the American Institute of Banking. Later, while working for Franklin National Bank, he was selected for a place on the bank’s executive training program.
In 1975, he was recruited by Barclays as senior vice president.
Within the Irish-American community in New York, Burke is best known from his 16 years as senior vice president with Bank of Ireland, which had its headquarters on Fifth Avenue, opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
On June 2, Burke will make a return to banking in Manhattan as president of Country Bank, which opens its first full branch in Midtown, at 48th Street and Second Avenue.
Country Bank, established in 1988, is headquartered in Carmel, N.Y. It has offices in Riverdale and Woodlawn, in the Bronx, and in Scarsdale, in Westchester County.
The majority shareholding in the bank, which reported assets of almost $124 million last December, is held by the family of Irish American businessman Joseph Murphy. Burke joined in 1993 after leaving Bank of Ireland.
While Country Bank is small in comparison to giants such as Citicorp, Chase and others, it is also distinguishing itself in other, more personal, ways.
“The big banks have little or no interest in the consumer,” Burke said. “Basically, they want consumers to go to ATMs or use their PCs at home.”
“Country Bank has a different idea about all of this,” Burke went on.
“People still want to walk into a bank and meet people. They want financial advice, they want to talk to somebody when they want a loan; they want to have that relationship.”
Of course, Country also has ATMs at all its branches, Burke pointed out. “We have technology as good as anyone’s,” he said, but added, “We find there are a lot of people who want to go into a bank and talk to a real person, whether it be about a social security check, purchasing a house or opening a business.
“We are finding a whole generation of young Irish people coming along who need advice and loans. We will listen to young people. We are a bank that understands Irish people in New York — and we’re also less expensive.”
Although it was in Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo, that Bill Burke was born 56 years ago, New York always loomed in the Burke household. Bill’s father, Martin, was born in Manhattan, having returned to Tubbercurry when he was a teenager after his mother inherited a farm there.
In Ireland, Martin Burke attended trade school, and served his time in a car dealership in Belfast and later in Gilbride’s Garage in Sligo Town. He then returned to Tubbercurry and began a small gas station and hackney business.
“He drove a lot of people to the train station who were emigrating,” Burke said of his father.
After attending St. Nathy’s College in Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, Bill Burke himself set off for New York to join his three brothers and two sisters.
In 1988, he was selected as grand marshal of the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, an honor many regard as the highest that can be bestowed on an Irish American.
Only in America could a trip to the laundry lead to being a grand marshal, then to president of the “Country.”
Photo Credit: Bill Burke was Grand Marshal of the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1988. Irish Echo archives photo.