By A. C. Scott
J. J. Burke was born at Ayr, Scotland, the birthplace of Robert Burns, in 1855. In early life he came to the United States, and about the year 1880 was married to Clara Jane Hiatt at Garnett, Kansas. At the beginning of the Eighties he moved to Colony, Kansas, and became the editor of the Colony Free Press. He continued in this work until 1889, when he came to Oklahoma City at the "opening." In the fall of that year he and Elmer E. Brown leased the Oklahoma City-Journal from A. C. and W. W. Scott and soon thereafter bought it. A little later they acquired the Oklahoma City Times from Hamlin W. Sawyer and thereby established the Oklahoma City Times-Journal. This association continued until 1895.
In the latter year Mr. Burke became night editor of the Daily Oklahoman, then owned and published by R. Q. Blakeney. In 1899 he moved to Norman and became editor of the Norman Transcript, published by Ed. P. Ingle. In 1903 he purchased this paper and was its editor and publisher until 1920, when he sold his Norman interests and moved to San Diego, California. He was postmaster at Norman for twelve years, from 1901 to 1913. He was a member of the Christian Science Church, of the Masonic fraternity, and of the Oklahoma Press Association, and was active in civic organizations.
He spent the last five years of his life with his son, Edmund H. Burke, and passed away there January 16, 1932. He is survived by his son; a sister, Mrs. Mary Johnson, of Kansas City, Missouri; and a granddaughter, Miss Agatha W. Burke.
From this brief outline it will be seen at once that Mr. Burke holds a very distinctive place in the pioneer journalism of Oklahoma. From the very beginning, in 1889, until 1921, a period of more than 30 years, he was a recorder of the events both great and small that made up
the life of the Territory and the State. From his writings alone could be gleaned a true and colorful history of these 30 years in Oklahoma.
For he was essentially a reporter. He had the reportorial gift to a remarkable degree. He was sensitive to news values. He loved to report the dramatic happenings of the early days,—and they were many—, and to this time these reports are most interesting reading. In preparing for my "Story of Oklahoma City," published serially three years ago, I was compelled to consult the records of the Kansas Historical Society, at Topeka. In going through the files of the Times-Journal I found myself absorbed in Burke's descriptions of the exciting events of 1889 and the early 'Nineties. And yet I observed this: that in these accounts, which might easily have been made sensational, Burke never over-played his part. While sacrificing nothing of interest or color, he exercised an admirable restraint. Most interesting instances of this restrained, though vivid, style of reporting are the accounts of the attempted charter election in Oklahoma City in 1889, the dramatic opening of the Kickapoo country, and the great "capital fight" of 1890.
But perhaps an even greater evidence of this reportorial gift was his ability to produce abundant copy when days were dull and news was scarce. That combination tests the mettle of the reporter. Burke solved the problem in the best possible way. There is an ancient saying, grammatical or not, that "names is news." Burke knew this well, by both instinct and experience. On dry days he combed the streets and places of business for "personals," for anything personal—happenings, opinions, comments, prospects, ambitions—and he invariably came back with news enough to crowd the galleys.
This leads me to speak of one of Mr. Burke's finest characteristics. If I read him aright, he was absolutely without malice. On the contrary, he had a habit, almost amounting to a passion, of saying pleasant things about people. He was not a flatterer nor addicted to fulsome praise where "thrift may follow fawning," but he held to that pleasing philosophy which prompts one to praise where praise is deserved and can be sincerely given. And thus
to many—and this writer gratefully acknowledges himself to be one—he gave strength and encouragement.
I have dwelt upon Mr. Burke's reportorial ability, first because I knew him best in that capacity, and second because I believe that ability was his outstanding gift. Yet he was a graceful and forcible writer in any field in which he was interested and a thoroughly informed man in public affairs; and in his long editorship of The Norman Transcript he won the esteem and affection of the newspaper fraternity of Oklahoma.
He had few enemies—none, indeed, that I know of. I know this is often held against a man—that he has no enemies. But there is another side to it. One may be so colorless as to have neither friends nor enemies; but when one has hosts of friends and no enemies there must be in him rare and winning qualities of heart and soul. I find corroboration of this estimate of Mr. Burke in a paragraph from an editorial in The Norman Transcript, with which I may fitly close:
"Mr. Burke was the best known and most beloved of all Norman newspaper men. He was the prime force for many years in the development of this newspaper, and as a pioneer journalist of the State, he not only recorded Oklahoma history but also helped to make it."