James E. Burch
Feb. 27, 1926-Nov. 28, 2011
Palo Alto, California
James E. Burch, former Palo Alto mayor, military veteran, advertising executive, and lifelong anti-war and environmental activist, died Nov. 28, 2011, 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 (and wife, Stephanie) and Kristina Lindsay.
A memorial service is pending.
Tags: veteran, business, public service