Merlene Davis: An advocate for the poor, Jack Burch will be missed

Herald-Leader columnistApril 9, 2014 

Jack Burch, who retired last year as executive director of the Community Action Council after 34 years, died Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at age 68 of lung cancer. In this picture taken last year, Burch stood next to a hand-carved door that was a gift when he left Mali, where he had served as the director for the Peace Corps.

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Jack Burch, the former head of the Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas counties for 34 years, died Wednesday of lung cancer. He was 68.

"This is a very sad day," said Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, and former superintendent of Fayette County Public Schools. "Jack was a champion for all kids. He was a champion for equity and he would stand up for the least of us even if it wasn't in his own self interest. It is a really sad day for Lexington."

Burch retired from CAC in June, anticipating time for travel to places he had only read about; time for gardening around his home, and time to master his glass-blowing technique.

It was to be his chance to concentrate on himself after a life of putting the needs of others first.

"That is what is so personally sad about it," said P.G. Peeples, president and CEO of the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County. "When it got to the point of retiring and having the opportunity to do things he wanted to do, he had less than a year.

"What he did was part of his job and also part of his heart as a person," Peeples said. "Jack, as a white person, did not hesitate to stand up and speak truth to power for not only poor people but also black people, where others would have run and hid."

Burch was born in Memphis, Tenn., into a family that wanted race relations to improve. He met Martin Luther King, Jr. at his family's dinner table and Burch's uncle, Lucius Burch, argued for King's right to march for striking sanitation workers.

"I don't understand people who are afraid of difference," Burch told me last year before he retired. "I am fascinated by the difference."

He served with the Peace Corps in Africa for eight years before working in Hazard as the president of Appalachian Leadership and Community Outreach for four years.

In 1979, he was named CAC executive director and given the task of righting a ship that was about to capsize because of financial and administrative problems.

It wasn't an easy transition, but, "He did a magnificent job from the time he took over," Peeples said.

Under Burch's leadership, CAC built state-of-the art Head Start programs, worked with utility companies to help families struggling to pay to heat their homes, and secured not only the basic needs of families, but also the education of children in order to break the cycle of poverty.

"Anyone can run programs," Burch told me last year. "Anybody can pay utility bills. Anybody can operate Head Start centers. But if you are not willing to speak to the community about the needs of the least advantaged people, you are not a community action program and you are not an executive director of one."

Malcolm Ratchford, executive director of CAC, said Burch took an agency that had all but failed and turned it into a $26 million organization.

"He made it easy for me to take over the job," he said.

"He never gave up fighting for everybody," Ratchford said. "He never gave up on me. He always believed I could do this job. He is responsible for me being where I am today.

Jack is the community action council."

Peeples agreed.

"He was a lifelong soldier for poor folks and it was genuine," he said. "It wasn't just part of the job. It was from his heart."

Burch is survived by his son, Jack E. (Jeb) Burch III; his daughter-in-law, Laura C. Jack; grandson Charlie Hall; sister, Jennie Robertson of Texas; brother, Dana Burch of Thailand; ex-wife Margaret Burch of Florida; and dear friend, Lanny Adkins.

No public memorial service is planned.

In lieu of flowers, the family has set up the Jack Burch Memorial Fund at Central Bank. Contributions will be added to a sum bequeath by Burch which will then be merged into the Patricia Burch McCann Social and Economic Activity Plan at the Blue Grass Community Foundation. McCann was Burch's mother.

Giving, serving and advocating was in his blood. That comes as no surprise to those who knew him.

"His commitment to helping others was truly inspirational," Jeb Burch said. "Dad was a dreamer who genuinely thought he could make the world a better place. I hope his legacy as an advocate for those in need will guide others to continue his work."

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray remembers Burch as a "fierce warrior in the war on poverty.

"He wouldn't take no for an answer," Gray said. "Always fighting for what's right, Jack made a difference by improving the lives of literally thousands of people; and he literally saved lives by making sure people had food or heat or decent housing. He will be missed."

We often say a person will be missed, but those words are not always truthful.

For Jack Burch, they are.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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