Anne M. Burke is awarded the Pugsley Medal for her crucial contributions in conceptualizing and launching the Special Olympics, She has been described as the "real sparkplug" who ignited the initial concept and brought it to fruition. She was appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court in July 2006 and was elected to a full 10-year term in 2008. Her judicial career began in 1987 with an appointment to the Illinois Court of Claims. She was the first woman to serve on that court. Subsequently, Justice Burke was appointed in 1995 and elected in 1996 to the Appellate Court, where she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court.
Justice Burke has had a long career in public service and as an advocate on behalf of Chicago's most vulnerable young people. Indeed, her public service contributions commenced before her involvement with law school and the legal profession when she was a junior staff member of the Chicago Park District. After leaving the Chicago Park District in 1970, Burke returned to school, while raising her four children (three of whom were adopted) and received a bachelor's degree horn De Paul University in 1976 and a law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1983.
She grew up in South Side Chicago and spent much of her youth in nearby parks. A self-described "awful" student, she excelled at baton twirling, ice skating, and other outdoor activities. After graduating from Maria High School, an all-girls Catholic high school in 1962, Burke spent one year at the YMCA's George Williams College. She dropped out to work as a physical education teacher at West Pullman Park for the Chicago Park District. It was in this role that her career path intersected with the aspirations of Eunice Shriver. In 1962, Shriver had created Camp Shriver at her 30-acre estate at Timberlawn. It accommodated 34 inner-city mentally retarded campers and lasted for four weeks focusing on swimming, rope climbing, horseback riding, other physical activities, craft, and recreational activities.
After the first year, Shriver sought advice from Bill Freeberg, who was head of the Recreation and Outdoor Education Department at Southern Illinois University. Since around 1954 he had been involved with organizing camping experiences for individuals with a wide range of handicaps, one of which was mental retardation. From 1962 until the beginning of the Special Olympics in 1968, he chaired an advocacy group to guide the expansion of Camp Shriver to other locations supported with funds from the Kennedy Foundation. By 1968, the foundation was giving grants to 32 such day camps, and there were around 750 other mental retardation campuses in the United States.
In Illinois, there was considerable interest in recreational programs for the mentally retarded because of Freeberg. The Chicago Park District was an early recipient of Kennedy Foundation Grants. When they received the first of these in 1965, Burke and nine co-workers volunteered to create programs for them. Thus, the Chicago Park District offered these programs at ten different field houses throughout the city. Burke and the other staff members went to Carbondale for a one-week training program organized by Freeberg to equip them for the task.
Despite this support, Shriver was not satisfied with the overall quality of the Chicago program, and in 1967, she expressed her concerns directly to the Park District leadership. The leadership went to Anne McGlone, whom they recognized as operating the best of their ten programs for the mentally retarded. Twenty-three years old at the time, Anne McGlone (who would shortly become Anne Burke when she married Alderman Edward Burke in 1968) had caught the Park District leadership's eye in the summer of 1967, when she organized at her field house a skillful production of theSound of Music, with her 100 mentally retarded children singing, dancing and making their own costumes and props.
Burke was asked to put on “a show or some sort of competition or track and field meet” to raise the mental retardation recreation program’s public profile. Since Burke had been organizing sports events for her children since 1965, she suggested they should stage a track and field meet. In 1967, Burke contacted Freeberg, whom she had last seen two years previously at his Carbondale training program, and he agreed that some kind of track-and-field competition might be a good idea using Soldier Field in Chicago at its home base.
Freeberg also suggested that she call Eunice Shriver to explain the concept and to see ii she would provide funding for it from the Kennedy Foundation to the Park District. Shriver told Burke to put her ideas in a proposal, and in January 1968 she was invited to Washington to discuss it. With that input, she returned to Chicago, consulted with Freeberg, and the two of them submitted a plan together for a "National Olympics for the Retarded."
The Kennedy Foundation approved the plan, and on March 29, 1968, Eunice Shriver announced at a press conference with Mayor Richard Daly a grant of $25,000 to the Park District for a "Chicago Special Olympics" specifically for the mentally retarded.
Although the event was launched, the concept had not been operationalized. Burkes vision was of a fun day. She recalled:
The day was to be for clinics. There'd be four clinics around the field for the swimming pool, the basketball court, hockey, and touch football. It was to be a casual play day as well as competition. [Others] envisioned it perhaps as a track meet, which was not our idea. [They] wanted only competition. That wasn't our goal. We wanted parents, volunteers, educators, and people from Chicago to understand, to touch, feel and be part of things with persons who were retarded whom they hadn't even seen participate before.
Burke explained the Chicago staff "coined the phrase Special Olympics because we had a special recreation program; that was the name of our program." Burke is proud of the contribution of the highly professional Park District sports staff who had long experience in organizing such events:
The seeds for every event came from the Chicago Park District....The evolution of what the Games were started from the Park District employees and their professional staff. Then the specifics of every event and what the rules would be were a combination of Park District people and the Kennedy Foundation people.
Burke's coworkers at the Chicago Park District suggested that what made her so effective was her dynamic personality and ability to work with others. One of them recalled, "We ended up building a pool right there in Soldier Field. To get that in there in a week or two – that was phenomenal. There probably wouldn't have been a Special Olympics without her."
The vision that Burke had developed was embraced by Eunice Shriver, who saw the Chicago Special Olympics as a pilot study. The excitement of the 1,000 Special Olympians who took part – in 85 groups from 23 states and Canada – convinced Shriver of the concept's potential. At the event's press conference, she committed to an immediate expansion of the program:
I wish to announce a national Special Olympics training program for all mentally retarded children everywhere. I also announce that in 1969 the Kennedy Foundation will pledge sufficient funds to underwrite five regional tryouts...The winners of these trial meets, and of hundreds of others like them, will participate in another International Special Olympics in 1970 and every two years thereafter.
Burke and the Chicago Park District were not aware of the scope of Shriver's ambitions: "The first time we had any inkling that the Kennedy Foundation was going to proceed with a national program was on the podium July 29 in Mrs. Shriver's speech. We were absolutely in shock." Anne Burke's concept and the piloting of it that she orchestrated at Soldier Field proved so successful that Special Olympics moved from being a Chicago Park District event to an international phenomenon.
Edward Shorter. (2000). The Kennedy family and the story of mental retardation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Angela Haupt. (2008). Special Olympics founder still working after 40 years. USA Today, July 16.