Palo Alto Weekly

Community Pulse - December 2, 2011

Jim Burch, former Palo Alto mayor, dies at 85

James E. Burch, former Palo Alto mayor, military veteran, advertising executive, and lifelong anti-war and environmental activist, died early Monday morning (Nov. 28) of Parkinson's disease and age. He was 85.

Known for his wry humor, creativity, devotion to global causes as well as to his wife, Wileta, Burch became Palo Alto's oldest mayor in 2005, at 78.

He was born in Evanston, Ill., on Feb. 27, 1926, the youngest of three sons of a World War I veteran and a religious pacifist. He credits his mother, who worked to end World War I, with initially shaping his life's philosophy, he told the Weekly in a 2005 interview. She taught him about the Biblical question: "Am I my brother's keeper?"

"She interpreted it for me; I've never forgotten it," Burch remembered. "I am my brother's keeper and he is mine, and together we will create the conditions under which we both will live."

His family moved to San Mateo in 1940, where he graduated from San Mateo High School in June 1943.

He was drafted into the U.S. Army (Infantry) in June 1944 and served in a South Pacific unit that didn't see combat. In the devastating aftermath of two atomic bombings, Burch's unit climbed up Wakayama Beach in Japan in September 1945 as part of the Army of Occupation.

He toured the streets of Osaka and Hiroshima and found them to be strikingly similar.

"Block after block after block was just rubble. Hiroshima didn't look too different, and it didn't register as terrible as it was," he said told the Weekly in May.

Having had enough of war, Burch convinced the Armed Forces Radio Service to hire him. At age 19, he became program director of station WVTQ in Osaka, Japan. He was honorably discharged from the army in May 1946.

After a stint in Hollywood's radio business writing for the likes of Gene Autry, Burch made partner at an advertising agency in Arizona. In 1949, he met Wileta, a teller at the firm's one major account: First Federal Savings. He proposed on the second date, and the two married within six months.

"I never asked her to marry me. I assumed," he said in a 2005 Weekly interview. "Part of my arrogant phase."

The couple had two children, Barbara and Bill.

In 1951, the young family moved to northern California, and Burch began a 23-year career with the San Francisco-based advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO), where he created award-winning advertisements for corporations such as PG&E, General Electric, Pacific Telephone and Standard Oil.

During this same period, he became involved with the Boy Scouts, United Way and NAACP and co-founded the nonprofit Urban Coalition in San Francisco.

He took early retirement and began his second career as a volunteer activist in 1974 after getting involved with the Sequoia Seminar. The consciousness-raising group combined Christian teachings with science and counseled members to take responsibility for their role in the "interconnected, interdependent universe," he said.

He also became president of a related Palo Alto nonprofit, Creative Initiative Foundation, which focused on anti-war education. A talk hosted by the group caused him to change his position on former client General Electric's nuclear-power programs. He established Project Survival, a statewide volunteer organization on behalf of the Nuclear Safeguards Initiative Proposition 15, which would have set strict limits on output at existing plants and required legislative approval prior to the construction of additional plants.

Creative Initiative garnered national attention when three participants simultaneously quit their jobs as GE nuclear program engineers and took public stands against nuclear power. The initiative was defeated in June 1976, but no new plants have been constructed since.

Creative Initiative changed its name to Foundation for a Global Community in 1990. Burch produced a series of nature documentaries for the foundation that were featured on PBS. He served as a trustee until it liquidated its assets last December, donating them to various peace and sustainability projects internationally.

In 1999, Burch was elected to the Palo Alto City Council. Though the job required a local focus, he brought his sense of global interconnectedness to city government.

"It's one world; it's one Earth; it's one planet; it's one ecosystem. We're either all going to make it or nobody's going to make it," he said when elected mayor at age 78 in 2005, the oldest mayor in city history.

"There are a number of things that are great about Palo Alto that are an inheritance," he said. "I offer the perspective of not getting caught up in the everyday pushing and shoving, not just solving the immediate problems."

Upon Burch's election to mayor by the council, Vice Mayor Judy Kleinberg said of him: "One of his greatest assets is his people skills. ... His roots are a pacifist's approach to conflict resolution."

He later said of the experience as mayor: "I enjoyed it immensely. When you're on the council you're one of nine. When you're mayor, you're one of one. It surprised me sometimes to walk into a meeting and have people say, 'Well, the mayor's here.' I just thought, 'Jim's here...'"

He served six years on the council before opting not to run for re-election.

Burch's most recent civic work included a successful campaign to decorate the Palo Alto Shuttle buses with photos of local residents and humorous sayings to boost awareness of the free service.

Graphic designer Carroll Harrington worked with Burch on the Palo Alto Shuttle project and called his creativity, organization and dedication "unequalled." She said she also appreciated "the incredible work" that he did with Creative Initiative.

Palo Alto resident and environmental activist Walt Hays said of Burch: "He was one of the most creative people I've ever met. To me, it was really impressive that he expressed that creativity to the end. He was a fountain of creativity."

Hays also admired Burch's decades as a full-time volunteer, and his years on the City Council, after taking an early retirement.

"The time he was on the council and mayor he played a major role in making sustainability a guiding principle and goal for this city," Hays said.

Palo Alto Mayor Sid Espinosa noted Monday that the flags around City Hall would be lowered to half-mast in honor of Burch.

"Today Palo Alto mourns the loss of a great community leader. Jim Burch always fought for things that he believed in, and for the City of Palo Alto, he never stopped working to make this city the best that it could be," Espinosa said. "Our hearts go out to Jim's wife of 61 years, Wileta, and the rest of his family. We join them in celebrating Jim's incredible life and legacy."

In May, Burch was awarded the Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement award. In an interview with the Weekly, he was characteristically humble.

"If I had a lifetime of achievement, it's because of her," he said, gesturing to Wileta. He credited his community, not personal actions, for the bulk of his successes.

Burch's overall philosophy was to embrace life rather than being fearful or mistrustful, he told the Weekly in 2006. He believed in "moving out into life."

"Don't sit back and wait for it to come ... or be on guard against it," he said.

"You wake up every morning, and you take a breath and you're alive. And the world is out there, and everything you need is there, if you move out to it," he said.

Burch is survived by Wileta, son Bill Burch, daughter Barbara Lindsay, and grandchildren Merrill Burch, David Lindsay (Stephanie) and Kristina Lindsay.

A memorial service is pending.

Comments

Posted by Carroll Harrington, a resident of Community Center
on Nov 28, 2011 at 8:15 pm

What a lovely obituary for a truly lovely man! He will live on in Palo Alto as the Palo Alto Free Shuttle happily goes to "Midtown, Downtown, Crosstown and all around FREE." He developed the idea, chose the individuals, wrote the text for the talk bubbles AND then supervised Ted Mock to take the photos with the right facial expression to go with the caption. Give it a wave and say "Thank you, Jim"!!!


Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 28, 2011 at 8:32 pm



Creative Initiative

--later Beyond War was an interesting group

--a Christian Peace organization based upon the book "Jesus as Teacher".

It had a very strong influence @ Stanford and beyond

Worth a full story to itself

--it now seems to have evaporated.

They had a huge estate near Felton--must be worth millions and owned large properties on High Street in PA.
What happened to them both?


Posted by RIP, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 28, 2011 at 8:46 pm

RIP Mayor Burch. We are thankful for and inspired by your service to our community.


Posted by Carroll Harrington, a resident of Community Center
on Nov 28, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Here is an article about the liquidation of all of the assets of Foundation for Global Community. Web Link


Posted by Joseph Kott, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 28, 2011 at 9:19 pm

This is sad news. Jim was a wonderful man and an enligthened Palo Alto community leader. He was thoughtful and gracious, a man who honored the civic square by his presence. A fellow upper Midwesterer, well spoken with a modest demeaner and a good heart.


Posted by Julie Weiss, a resident of another community
on Nov 28, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Jim was a class act. Warm, wise, funny, a mentor and a role model of a human being. So grateful to have known you, Jim, and I (and scores of others) send equal admiration and affection to Wileta an equal and sparkling gem of a person.


Posted by Judy Kleinberg, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 28, 2011 at 11:46 pm

I had the privilege of working with Jim on the Council for 6 years and especially enjoyed the year when he was Mayor and I was Vice Mayor, as we shared a common interest in environmental matters. He brought great wisdom, good humor, optimism, maturity, and a sense of doing what was "fair and right" to our discussions. Our community's programs in sustainability are a lasting and fitting legacy of his leadership. A man of deep faith - a gentle giant of a man - we were truly lucky to have his presence in our community.


Posted by Chris Zaharias, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 29, 2011 at 12:29 am

Though I wasn't old enough to know everyone involved in Troop 57, I do recall he was one of the troop elders that undoubtedly made it such a great experience for so many young Palo Alto men.

Thanks, Jim!


Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 29, 2011 at 7:39 am

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

If Palo Alto was a tribe, we have lost one of our elders. His spirit and legacy will carry on as he gave us the fabric for a practical form of environmentalism. We see his legacy in the tangible, but also the intangibles such as our community's values toward the environment and duty to protect. We are lucky to have had a man like him, and I treasure this moment of reflection as I assimilate his passing.


Posted by Rho Henry Olaisen, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 29, 2011 at 8:49 am

Jim was a beacon of strength, of presence, of Can-Do attitude. With his gentle ways, he guided and strengthened Abilities United and the Betty Wright Swim Center. We will deeply miss him but we are all the much stronger for the life he led. An exemplary man; a humble spirit; a generous heart.


Posted by John Kidd, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2011 at 11:09 am

A very good article about one of the finest of men. Jim was truly an inspirational force for what is good in the human experience.


Posted by Alan Zulch, a resident of Professorville
on Nov 29, 2011 at 11:30 am

This is a wonderful tribute to a remarkable and inspiring man of lifelong service. Jim was indeed a true elder in the community and will be missed.


Posted by Ronna Devincenzi, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 29, 2011 at 11:31 am

Jim was a true gentleman, and a wonderful liason from council to the California Avenue Area Development Association (CAADA). He came to every meeting, with such enthusiasm, always having his finger on the pulse of the district, interested in everything that was going on, even after his term on council was over.

During the past few years, I was able to chat with Jim at the California Avenue Twilight street concerts, finding him & Wileta amidst the crowds, sitting on their portable chairs & enjoying the music. He'll be greatly missed.


Posted by Carl Jones, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 29, 2011 at 11:48 am

I met Jim and Wileta in Creative Initiative in the 70's. Jim was all that has been eloquently said above, and more. He will be missed.


Posted by Susan Stansbury, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 29, 2011 at 11:52 am

I am among the most fortunate for having had the opportunity to work with Jim at Foundation for Global Community. He has been a cherished friend and lifelong mentor ever since. He mastered how to love in every situation and the world is unquestionably a better place because of him. We'll miss you Jim, but memories of your intelligence and humor and your shining example of how to conduct a meaningful life will carry on.


Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 29, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Condolences on the passing of Mr. Burch. I know he had a very positive effect in PA.
I was interested to hear he was born in Evanston, IL, another great city.


Posted by Amy Renalds, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2011 at 12:51 pm

I truly loved this man and everything he stood for. He loved mentoring, always asking questions and concerned about others. He ADORED Wileta and I hope she finds some peace in that.

Thank you Jim - I'll miss you.


Posted by JT, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 29, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Two things about Burch the Weekly's obit omits:

1. On Feb. 7, 2005, Aram James went to the microphone at the City Council meeting, where Burch was presiding as mayor, and complained about the city's plan to change the Human Relations Commission in how it handled police complaints. According to <Web Link; news accounts at the time, "Burch, however, abruptly cut James off and accused him of verbally attacking City Manager Frank Benest. A heated exchange between the two men (Burch and James) ensued." After a recess, police were brought into the council chamber, chilling any kind of free speech that might have occurred. That should certainly be part of Burch's legacy.

2. Burch gave us Frank Benest, possibly the worst city manager in Palo Alto's history. Burch got snookered by a headhunting firm that recommended the council hire Benest as manager. Burch didn't check out Benest's past in Brea. Over the years, as the community soured on Benest, Burch stubbornly defended his choice.


Posted by JT, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 29, 2011 at 1:10 pm

I made a mistake in the above weblink. Here's the correct link Web Link


Posted by ralphc, a resident of The Greenhouse
on Nov 29, 2011 at 1:13 pm

ralphc is a registered user.

Would that there were more among us like Jim -- a creative, caring, wise, generous and loving man.


Posted by Mom, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2011 at 1:15 pm

He was such a gentleman and a great role model.


Posted by Not impressed, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Nov 29, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Thanks, JT, for bringing a dose of reality to this thread. I remember very well the shabby treatment Mr James received at Burch's hands. I also remember that Burch was against the establishment of an eruv in Palo Alto. He did not impressme


Posted by neighbor, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 29, 2011 at 3:00 pm

JT -- Jim was a man who contributed so much to his community. He wasn't a god, and would have been the first to admit so. Why bring up two "complaints" when so much overshadows anything you perceive as less than perfection? Of course he made decisions you (and others) may not have agreed with or did things you did not like; what community leader has not? Allow him to be human and allow others an opportunity to celebrate the life of a creative man who gave much of himself to others. Please be respectful of his family and their grief by waiting awhile if you need to complain. It would be much appreciated. Respectfully, a neighbor


Posted by Don Wurtz, a resident of another community
on Nov 29, 2011 at 3:48 pm

I have known Jim for over 40 years. He is one of the smartest, most creative personalities I have known. As to Jt's comments -- yes, Jim could get his ire up on occasion. But he never held a grudge. I know that being Mayor of P.A. would be one of the toughest jobs around, and I'm sure that for the time he was there he added much and detracted little. I will miss him greatly.


Posted by Megan Rodda, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2011 at 5:17 pm

I will always remember, from a very young age.... Mr. Burch's friendly smile and the way he showed interest in every topic of conversation. To the family, my thoughts are with you.


Posted by Barbara Kyser, a resident of Los Altos
on Nov 29, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Jim was a true leader whose creativity and energy were focused on building global community and a world beyond war. His dedication to these goals were an inspiration to me and many others who have known him for decades. His legacy will live on in those who he inspired and taught by example over the years. He will be truly missed.


Posted by Observer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 30, 2011 at 12:09 am

Thank you, Jim Burch for your many years of service to all of us. Of course, nobody would agree with every act in an entire life, but here is a man who gave so much more than most of us. And incidentally, it's unseemly to criticize the person featured in this sort of notification.


Posted by Mayfield, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 30, 2011 at 3:38 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


Posted by Beverly Sincock, a resident of another community
on Nov 30, 2011 at 6:01 am

Jim was a very kind man who was passionate about his beliefs. I knew him for over 40 years and only have the deepest respect for he and his wife Wileta. How many people can say they accomplished so much in one lifetime.


Posted by Elke Heitmeyer, a resident of another community
on Nov 30, 2011 at 8:07 am

I was blessed to have worked with Jim during the Beyond War years. His intelligence, dedication to making a positive difference in the world, his deep caring and his kindness helped me be a better person, do more to contribute to our planet. The world really is a better place thanks to Jim. JIM BURCH PRESENTE!


Posted by Charles Burch, a resident of another community
on Nov 30, 2011 at 9:03 am

Not too long after Jim's mayoral term, I visited Wileta and him in their home. In his office was a wall with pictures and accolades, but Jim brought my attention to a particular small, typewritten letter.

It was a letter regarding his service as mayor. I don't remember the exact text, but the essence was "Good Riddance, You Turkey". Jim laughed, with that melodious chuckle he had.

And so it would be if he were looking at these comments today. Mostly laudatory, some criticism; Jim would take it all in with equanimity. He was an incredibly gifted and generous with his gifts. So many people carry a bit of the light he gave to the world. He lives on in those who knew him.


Posted by Barbara Thomas, a resident of another community
on Nov 30, 2011 at 10:05 am

Jim was a great mentor to me and my husband and always willing to go an extra mile to make one feel appreciated. We will miss him and his beautiful spirit. And his wife is everything that was stated in the article.


Posted by Dina and Ben Bensen, a resident of another community
on Nov 30, 2011 at 11:14 am

It was with such sadness that I read of the passing of this dedicated man. How many of us has he touched with his Being? How many of us can say we made such an impact? Our love to Wileta and his family. Thank you, for supporting Jim in his quest to make this a better world. This man had vision! We know. We worked with him on many levels and endeavors. Blessings.


Posted by kern.beare, a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 30, 2011 at 10:29 pm

I first met Jim in the 1970s, when I was still in high school. He was, above all else for me, a wonderful role model for what it meant to be a human in general, and a man in particular. He had great presence, creativity, and kindness. He was also bold and very decisive. I will be grateful to him the rest of my life. Love and blessings to Wileta, Bill and Barbara.


Posted by Cilla Reid, a resident of another community
on Dec 1, 2011 at 8:59 am

Jim Burch was my uncle and when I was a young teenager, I stayed with him and Wileta and their two children (Barbara and Bill) for a brief time after my mother died. I remember a home filled with love and commitment; I saw Uncle Jim as a tower of strength and thought Wileta was the most beautiful, accomplished woman I had ever seen. I will never forget the way their whole family surrounded me in a blanket of love.


Posted by Targe Lindsay, Sr., a resident of another community
on Dec 1, 2011 at 10:43 am

My wife and I were more or less silent partners with Jim and Wileta for thirty seven years. It has turned out to be a successful venture in that our grandchildren, David and Kristina, pretty much reflect the qualities that this article and the commenters attribute to Jim. They have been fortunate to live nearby and share in the reflected quality and precepts of both Jim and Wileta.

He was a great man. He had every positive quality that anyone could wish for, although he did not wish for them. He was born with some and earned the rest of them as he built them one by one. His positive nature, brilliant mind, social consciousness and considerate actions led him into a leadership role where ever he was, and the people he led or influenced trusted him implicitly, knowing that he was an altruistic, but practical, highly competent man who wanted the best for everyone. His judgment was impeccable as best observed by his quick fortunate choice for a life partner, Wileta, who worked in tandem with him on everything.

With his abundant creativity he could have continued on successfully in the advertising business, but he chose to leave it, not retire, at age fifty, and as this Online article reports so well, he spent the rest of his life donating his time and energy to organizations that were dedicated to making the world, including Palo Alto, a better place. In that regard, he was also inspirational, and he inspired others around him to put forth their best efforts towards their mutual causes.

He led by example, not exhortation, and his exemplary lifestyle was undergirded by understatement. Nothing phony ever interested him. Phony and Jim did not mix. His sincerity and generosity were obvious and backed up by facts, real events and genuine efforts.

Add a low key but ever ready sense of humor, a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of energy, and you have a truly uncommon man.

In my book, he ranks up there with the best of the best people I most admire


Posted by Anita Dippery, a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 1, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Jim has been our friend, mentor, teacher for 46 years. He is the perfect example of a person who lived a "Purposeful Life". When he finished on project he found another and another.
He was a possibility thinker and acted on it and brought his community and the world to a better place. He had a great sense of humor and saw the funny side of so much.
We will miss this gentle giant of a man, and we who worked with him will continue to be inspired by his life.


Posted by Pat Crawford, a resident of another community
on Dec 1, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I too knew Jim for many, many years, and found him to be a fair and knowledgable man. He helped me when my husband was in India and I was alone at home with my rebellious teenage son. I called him and he immediately responded by telling us both to come to Palo Alto to see him. We did and problem solved. (He had my son get into my frame of reference - and help me, as he was now " man of the house")

Jim was a loving, compassionate man. He meant what he said - and I, as well as many others, will miss him very much.

Wileta and Barbara and Bill-you are all in my prayers.


Posted by Debbie Ford-Scriba, a resident of another community
on Dec 2, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Truly a life well lived. RIP, Jim.


Posted by Penny, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 2, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Jim was a friend and neighbor. I will miss him.

Wileta, he always spoke of you with such affection. I hope the memories you made together will be a comfort during this time of loss.

May his memory be a blessing.


Posted by dott31, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 2, 2011 at 8:09 pm

While I never knew Jim personally, I did know personally other members of Beyond War and its many names. As I watched him on tv, I felt discomfort as I was reminded of the sometimes too self-satisfied attitudes of the members of the group named above. While I have no doubt that he was a good man, I remember the group-think of Beyond War and its earlier incarnations as inhibiting independent reflection and judgment.


Posted by Yoriko Kishimoto, a resident of University South
on Dec 5, 2011 at 10:58 am

I love the Palo Alto Weekly story about Jim and his Wileta and agree with all the comments about his rich "purposeful life". Jim was the first to actually run for city council on a largely "sustainability" agenda and he set the tone for many of us who followed. He was very proud of the zero waste path that we started together.

Thank you Jim -- you will be missed.


Posted by Joel Kellman, a resident of Atherton
on Dec 8, 2011 at 8:53 pm

We knew Jim in Creative Initiative. He led our first seminar and helped changed our lives. A giant of a man and a model for a life well led.


Posted by Tim Lattimer, a resident of another community
on Dec 24, 2011 at 4:26 am

Jim's impact extended far beyond P.A. I grew up in Southern California and first met him and Wileta around 1984, when he delivered a presentation on Beyond War in Fullerton. Those of us working on BW and, later, Foundation for Global Community, drew great inspiration from the Burches, as well as the group's other founders & leaders. They helped us enlarge our understanding of "community," knowing that "We are One." They offered role models for many of us to continue working to sustain our communities and our planet. Many continue to do this work in various parts of the country and the world to this day. Although I was unable to attend his memorial service, reading this article and the comments posted here was the next best thing. RIP Jim. We'll keep you, Wileta, and your family in our thoughts & prayers.


Posted by Llinda and Mike Hogan, a resident of another community
on Dec 29, 2011 at 4:07 pm

We are saddened to hear of the loss of Jim; he was a man of great depth, purpose and insight which he shared with us when we had the opportunity to work with him and Wileta in Creative Initiative and Beyond War. Both experiences changed our lives in a myriad of positive ways, helping us to see ourselves more clearly and teaching us that there is value present in the opposing point of view. That perspective has served us well throughout our lives, and we are immensely grateful to have shares even a small piece of life with Jim some years ago.
Our love goes out to Wileta and the family. We are holding you all in the light.


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