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Ill. student improves park dedicated to fallen officer

When Brendan Bahan learned the story of Officer Robert Burke, he decided to bring that story into the present by rejuvenating the park


By Kathy Routliffe
Pioneer Press Newspapers, Suburban Chicago, Ill.

CHICAGO — To motorists on Green Bay or Church roads in Winnetka, the wedge of greenery at their confluence can pass unremarked, its sign and tiny plaque unseen. To Brendan Bahan, Robert E. Burke Memorial Park was first a mystery, then a window on an all but forgotten part of Winnetka's past.

When Bahan, a 15-year-old member of Winnetka Scout Troop 20, learned the story of Robert Burke, the only Winnetka police officer to die in the line of duty, he decided to bring that story into the present by rejuvenating the park as his Eagle Scout service project.

"I live only a block from the park itself. For a while, I'd just pass it and not know what it was. I finally walked over and saw the plaque. Then I did some research," Bahan said. "I realized if I live this close to the park and didn't know what happened, other people probably didn't, and I felt it was important to honor this officer."

On Nov. 11, after months of research, planning, and hard work, Bahan, a New Trier High School sophomore who is also the son of Winnetka Village Manager Rob Bahan, officiated at the park's rededication.

The snowy ceremony was attended by Robert Burke's younger brother Bill, of Sterling, Ill., who postponed travel plans to attend. Police from Winnetka, Glencoe, Kenilworth and Northfield were also on hand, as were members of Bahan's Scout troop, park district and other community representatives.

The park now has a new and redesigned sign, complete with an accurate representation of the Winnetka police medallion. It has been re-landscaped, with more colorful plantings to attract the eye, according to Bahan and Winnetka Park District maintenance head Andrew Cabrera.

Tane Beecham, director of the Winnetka Historical Society, said Bahan "dusted the cobwebs off the monument, and brought it to peoples' attention again."

"Most of us in the Society weren't aware of the story, because it happened so long ago," she said.

Marc Hornstein, Winnetka's interim police chief, said that Patrolman Robert E. Burke was only 31 years old on May 23, 1957, when he stopped his squad car to investigate a hitchhiker standing on Green Bay Road.

According to information published at the time of the park's 1997 dedication, the hitchhiker began firing at Burke as he got out of his car. Burke fired one shot in return, but was hit in the chest. His assailant reportedly waved witnesses away, walked across Green Bay to the land that eventually became Burke Memorial Park, and shot himself.

"What impressed me so much is that a young person in the community recognized the significance of this history," Hornstein said. "We have (Burke's) picture and his star and service revolver on display at police headquarters, but many people don't know anything about him."

Winnetka Police Officer Glenn Florkow, now retired, worked to get what was then Bradstreet Park renamed for Burke, Hornstein said. Since then, the wood on the original sign deteriorated, Bahan said, and the original landscape plantings gave way to weeds.

Bahan approached the park district with his rededication proposal about nine months ago, Cabrera said.

"We knew that at some point in our future we'd be doing some improvement there, so it fit in with our plan," Cabrera said. "I'm an Eagle Scout myself, so I was excited to work with Brendan."

Bahan said he researched the story at the Historical Society, met with former Police Chief Patrick Kreis and with Hornstein and Florkow.

He tackled what he said seemed like a ton of paperwork, some of which he must still complete before sitting for his final Eagle Scout application interview. He also weathered last-minute challenges, including pouring rain on the initial work day that forced a date and work team change, he said.

The entire project cost between $4,000 and $5,000, Cabrera said. Bahan raised funds for landscaping materials, as well as for the creation of the police medallion placed at the top of the sign, Cabrera said.

Nat Roberts, Bahan's troop master, called Bahan a quiet leader whose methodical planning abilities are a strength: "Other people sort of rally the troops and charge the hill. He sits and thinks about how to organize things, then goes and does what he says he's going to ... He cares deeply about civic commitment issues, and I think it's illustrative of Brendan that he chose this project."

Bahan's mother, Anne Bahan, said she was proud of her son and of how his project improved the park's appearance.

"The fact that Brendan did this has really brought attention to (Officer Burke)," she said. "It was great to see how many people came out to support the project. They were all so touched and moved that even a high school kid would feel how important it is to honor the man."

©2017 Pioneer Press Newspapers (Suburban Chicago, Ill.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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