Click photo to enlarge
Bill Burke at his home in Concord, Calif., on Thursday, December 4, 2008. (Todd Campbell Photo)

CONCORD -- Bill Burke, a beloved music educator, talented trombonist and co-founder of the local Diablo Symphony, has died of cancer. He was 87.

Burke is remembered by his family, former students and colleagues as an inspiring instructor who recognized budding talent and helped many musicians to go onto successful careers. But his legacy was his commitment to school music programs.

"To the end, he was fighting the battle to bring the arts back into the schools -- particularly the music," said Bob Rezak, local arts advocate and former founding chairman of the Contra Costa County Arts Commission. "It was his main thrust."

Burke worked for many years in the Mt. Diablo school district. He grew the Ygnacio Valley High music program to prominence when his band won the first high school competition at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1971.

Many of Burke's former students credit their teacher with helping them launch music careers.

Jazz musician Mary Fettig said Burke helped her get a scholarship to the Stan Kenton camp in Redlands, before she eventually became the first woman in Kenton's band.

"He's really, in a big way, responsible for the career that I've had," said Fettig, who studied music under Burke at Ygnacio Valley High. "I just feel like every child deserves a Mr. Burke. He was one in a million."

Neal Finn, who is now a professor of Jazz Studies at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, played drums in the Ygnacio Valley band before graduating in 1973.

"Bill was the most selfless person I ever met," Finn said. "He was so devoted to all of us in the band program, regardless of whether you were the first chair player or the last chair player. There were awards and accolades and honors, but he was more about getting students to fall in love with music than he was about winning trophies."

David Grover played lead trumpet in the Ygnacio Valley High band and went onto become a professional musician, before switching to computer engineering.

"My music career was due in large part to Bill Burke," he said. "He was amazing because he let us make a lot of the decisions as to what kind of music we wanted to play and then he guided us, using his knowledge of music, and let us discover our own path."

Michael Miller, who became a prominent Hollywood composer with Henry Mancini as his mentor, said Burke introduced students to top-notch professional musicians, who played with them.

"It was his brilliant foresight of doing whatever it took to bring in world-acclaimed guest artists to Ygnacio Valley High School that helped launch the successful music careers of so many of his students, including my own," Miller said. "The amazing way that Mr. Burke had of imparting his sheer musicality with such kindness, respect and grace to all of his students is something I have never forgotten."

Besides sharing his love of music, Burke was a role model and "guiding light," said Marc Langelier, who played trumpet at Ygnacio Valley High.

"Bill was one of the best human beings I ever came in contact with in my life," he said. "Truly a great guy."

Burke's wife, Jerry, said her husband appreciated the fact that many of his students remembered him fondly and wanted to stay connected to him. Even though he was ill with cancer, he visited with several of his former students last year after their 40th high school reunion.

"He was just that kind of a person," she said. "Gentle, kind and thoughtful."

EPITAPH
Bill Burke
Born: May 26, 1925 in Alameda.
Died: Oct. 1 in Concord.
Survived by: Wife Jerry; sons William and Michael; daughters Susan Williamson and Patricia Larson; 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Services: A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Nov. 3 at First Presbyterian Church, 1965 Colfax St. in Concord. The family is accepting cards and flowers.