Charlie Burbach didn’t care much for school when he was young, but he went on to be an accomplished educator, ultimately hosting a U.S. president at a St. Paul school where he served as principal.
Friend and fellow school administrator Tom King recalled the two men waiting to greet President George H.W. Bush during Bush’s visit to the former Saturn School of Tomorrow in 1991.
“I whispered to Charlie, ‘Would you ever have believed two scruffy West Side kids would one day shake the hand of the president?’ ” King said recently. “Me, either.”
Burbach, who stayed connected to his old St. Paul neighborhood, in part through his association with the Baker Boys Tennis Club, died Oct. 30, less than a month after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. He was 84.
He still was seeking to help others cultivate a passion for learning in the days before his death.
The son of a truck driver who could not read or write, Burbach often was pulled from school as a youngster to accompany his dad on the road. The two traveled state to state while Charlie logged miles and expenses for his father, Charlie’s son, Joe Burbach, said last week.
Burbach finally gained an appreciation for learning at age 15 when he was invited to play tennis with his physician, Dr. Herman Kesting. Burbach discovered at the courts at the West Side’s Baker playground a collection of players who valued education, and achieved success as a result.
“Tennis became his passion, and that passion pushed many doors open,” Joe Burbach said.
Burbach attended the University of Minnesota, and while in a carpool to the U in 1958, met a girl, Cecelia, who would become his wife of 58 years.
As an educator, Burbach devoted his career to working with special-education students, first as a teacher at the Crowley School, and later in the early 1970s into the 1990s as principal at Bridge View School. Today, Bridge View remains home to the most profoundly disabled of St. Paul Public Schools students.
Joe Nathan, director of the St. Paul-based Center for School Change, who was on the losing side of tennis matches against Burbach, said Burbach had a great sense of humor and was an asset to the district.
“He was beloved by generations of students with disabilities — and their families,” Nathan said.
Burbach was tapped in 1989 to lead the high-tech Saturn School of Tomorrow — a position he would hold while continuing to serve as principal at Bridge View.
The White House saw in Saturn a symbol of its hopes for more daring approaches to teaching. On May 22, 1991, Bush toured the school with Burbach and King, and spoke at the nearby downtown public library.
Had he been there two days earlier, he also could have celebrated “Charles J. Burbach Day” — as proclaimed by Mayor Jim Scheibel and Gov. Arne Carlson. Carlson praised Burbach for his “personal zeal for fitness and wellness and outdoor sports,” saying he set an example for friends and colleagues.
In his final weeks, Burbach sat down with son Joe for interviews about his life and career. He made time for each of his children and his grandchildren to do something they loved, on one occasion summoning every bit of strength he had to watch grandson Jack Burbach go horseback riding.
“My dad seemed to want to help each of us find our spark — our version of his tennis, if you will,” Joe Burbach said.
In addition to his wife, Cecelia, and son, Joe, Burbach is survived by a sister, Dorothy Carlson; daughter Linda Zurn and son Michael Burbach; seven grandchildren and a great-grandson. Services have been held.