Caltech Mourns the Loss of Trustee Walter Burke


Walter Burke, longtime president and treasurer of the Sherman Fairchild Foundation and a life member of the Caltech Board of Trustees, passed away on November 1, 2018. He was 96 years old.

First named to the Caltech Board of Trustees in 1975, Burke was elected a life member in 2009 and held this position until his death. He was a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory committee as well as a member of the visiting committees for the divisions of physics, mathematics and astronomy (PMA), and the humanities and social sciences (HSS).

In 2014, Caltech and the Sherman Fairchild Foundation honored Burke with the creation of the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics, which has strengthened Caltech's leading role in the quest to discover fundamental laws of nature and to explain natural phenomena at all scales—from subatomic, atomic, and molecular scales to the scales of celestial objects and the universe itself.

"Walter's leadership and longstanding participation on the board of trustees, as well as his generosity and commitment to advancing scientific understanding, have left an enduring legacy for us to honor and uphold," says David L. Lee (PhD '74), chairman of the Board of Trustees.

"Walter's storied career, taste for talent, and exemplary generosity contributed to Caltech's success for more than 40 years," says Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. "He was a champion for our scholars and a catalyst for discovery, including the transformative detection of gravitational waves. He will continue to live in our memories and as part of the Institute's continuing impact on the world."

As the founding director of the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, Burke helped to establish a longstanding relationship between Caltech and the foundation. Among the efforts he was closely involved in were the creation of the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholars Program, which brought hundreds of scientists and researchers to Caltech for extended visits from 1973 to 1994. The visitors who came to campus through this program have included Stephen Hawking and several Nobel laureates. Similarly, he was very supportive of a program that brought Hawking to Caltech annually for research collaborations and lectures between 1991 and 2013.

"Walter was a wonderful friend to me, to PMA, and to Caltech," says Kip Thorne (BS '62), Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, and a 2017 Nobel Laureate in Physics. "He was a longtime member of the Caltech Board of Trustees and of the PMA visiting committee, where his frank, to-the-point advice was of great value."

Burke was an early supporter of Thorne's research group and, later, of the Caltech-Cornell SXS Program to simulate sources of gravitational waves. That program has been crucial to the black-hole discoveries made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO).

"Walter made lasting contributions to theoretical physics and other areas of science at Caltech," adds Hirosi Ooguri, the director of the Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Fred Kavli Professor of Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. "We miss him greatly."

Burke was born on July 30, 1922, in New York. He attended Dartmouth College from 1940 through 1942 and served as a lieutenant junior grade in the Naval Reserve from 1942 to 1946. After receiving his LLB from Columbia Law School in 1948, he practiced with Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft from 1948 to 1952. He then became a financial adviser to Sherman Fairchild, the inventor of the aerial camera, and eventually succeeded him as chairman of the board of the Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corporation. Burke served on the board of the Sherman Fairchild Foundation for more than 50 years, including 35 years as president.

He was a life trustee of the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, and a trustee emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and of Columbia University. He was also a former trustee and board chairman of both Dartmouth College and the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut, of which he was an alumnus. He held an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from Dartmouth College.

Burke, who was preceded in death by his son Douglas Burke, is survived by his wife of 76 years, Constance Burke; children Diane Burke, Nancy Burke Tunney, Bonnie Burke Himmelman, and Walter F. Burke III; and other family.

Written by Lori Oliwenstein