Leaders & Legacies: Chris and Susan Burke, educators, conservationists, and philanthropists 'Doing a World of Good in Our Own Backyard'
Leaders & Legacies: Stories of Local Impact is an ongoing series brought to you in partnership with the Daily Herald and DuPage Foundation. It highlights the inspiring stories of local individuals, families, and businesses that have made or are making a lasting impact for our community through their generosity and leadership.
The series continues with Dr. Christopher B. Burke and Susan S. Burke of Naperville.
<i>“The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats, and biodiversity.” - Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day</i>
On Earth Day nearly 50 years ago, Edmund Martin Burke, the mayor of Olympia Fields, brought his eldest son, Chris, for a day cleaning up Butterfield Creek with a group of volunteers.
During the cleanup, the teen noticed snags on the opposite side of the creek and volunteered to wade across the water with a chain saw to cut the dead trees back. He had never used a chain saw before, but he had confidence in his ability to get the job done. This trait would carry over into his life of service to improve the quality of life throughout his community and beyond.
His father wisely declined to let him wield a chain saw that day. Instead, Chris joined the cleanup crew in filling up several trucks with debris. He still remembers being stunned by the amount of garbage they pulled from the creek. The experience instilled in Chris an interest in environmental causes and set him on a path to supporting institutions and organizations that promote conservation and clean water.
As another Earth Day approaches, Dr. Christopher B. “Chris” Burke and his wife, Susan S. Burke, are doing their part in making our planet a better place through their decades-long advocacy and support for education and the environment.
Before founding Christopher B. Burke Engineering Ltd. (CBBEL) in Rosemont, Chris attended Purdue University where he studied civil engineering, receiving an undergraduate degree in 1977, a master's degree in 1979, and a doctorate in 1983.
While working on his master's degree, Chris met the love of his life, Susan Schafer. His fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta, was right across the street from Susan's sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta. Susan was pursuing her undergraduate degree in hearing and speech pathology at Purdue.
Susan went on to receive her master's degree in education of the hearing-impaired at Smith College in Massachusetts and taught in several states while Chris pursued his Ph.D. in civil engineering at Purdue. The couple's romance endured despite the long distances and busy schedules, and after dating for five years, they got engaged and married a year later.
Their eventual union created a true partnership with a division of labor that allowed Chris to launch and develop one of the top engineering firms in the country, while Susan served as the CEO of their family, which grew to include two sons and two daughters, and, today, seven grandchildren.
As the oldest of six children, it's not surprising Chris has sought out leadership roles, both professional and volunteer, over the course of his life. Throughout his career, he has chaired virtually every professional organization in his field of civil engineering and has served as the chair of several nonprofit boards, including College of DuPage Foundation, The Conservation Foundation, Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation, and The Morton Arboretum, to name a few.
Chris readily admits that his ability to give back has been largely thanks to the support of his wife, Susan. They are a true team with Susan taking the lead on the home front, raising their four children while Chris built his civil engineering firm, growing it from a one-person office to a business with $100 million in annual revenues powered by a team of 400 employees, which now includes their eldest son, Edmund.
“Susan did everything,” recalled Chris. “She was the glue of the family, handling parent-teacher conferences, doctor's appointments, and getting the kids to and from school. She took all of that on. I had the bandwidth to be of service because Susan took care of everything for our family.”
As the children grew older, Susan found time to give back, getting involved with their schools, serving in a number of leadership roles. She volunteered as a first-grade aide at St. Raphael School in Naperville for a number of years and was actively engaged in fundraising events for all of her children's schools.
Once her children were grown, Susan became a full-time kindergarten teacher at St. Raphael School. Her first love has always been educating children, especially those in need.
Before starting as a kindergarten teacher, Susan had been involved with the Illinois Project for Special Needs Children, an organization that was started by members of Kappa Alpha Theta from different universities. The project raised money to donate items such as hearing aids, wheelchairs, and even summer camp experiences for children with special needs.
While Susan's interests centered on education and children in need, Chris devoted his time to professional organizations in his field of civil engineer while serving on the boards of several nonprofits, including The Conservation Foundation.
The Conservation Foundation
Chris first met Brook McDonald, president/CEO of The Conservation Foundation, in 1996. At the time, The Conservation Foundation was working with the Forest Preserve of DuPage County and the Downers Grove Park District to buy land adjacent to Lyman Woods to preserve it as open space.
CBBEL had been hired by a developer interested in turning the space into developed land. As Chris became familiar with The Conservation Foundation and its work, a mutual respect formed, resulting in the Lyman Woods property remaining open space thanks to the efforts of all involved.
Chris ultimately joined the board of The Conservation Foundation in 2004 and currently serves as its chair.
“Chris never misses a meeting, and he runs them extremely well,” McDonald said. “They start and end on time. He's skilled at allowing everyone who serves on the board to have a voice, and he does things for the right reason. He's involved in so many important causes, I don't know how he fits everything he does into a day.”
Wheaton Bank & Trust president Bob Hutchinson, who has served on many of the same boards as Chris including Choose DuPage, College of DuPage Foundation, The Conservation Foundation, and The Wetlands Initiative Board, has noticed Chris' leadership contributions.
“Chris is a great board member and is always a reasoned voice for his causes,” Hutchinson said. “He has a sincere belief in everything he does and he only works with credible organizations. When Chris asks a question, you listen. I have tremendous respect for him.”
The Morton Arboretum
The Morton Arboretum has also benefited from Chris and Susan's service and support. Chris attributes his love of The Morton Arboretum to his father, who used to take Chris and his siblings there when they were children. His father's affinity for nature was handed down to Chris and has become a part of his DNA. Chris' respect for nature combined with his leadership skills have made him an invaluable member of The Morton Arboretum board.
Jill Koski, the new president and CEO of The Morton Arboretum, praises the contributions Chris has made to the organization: “Chris is a true believer in environmental conservation and dedicates himself to the cause of planting and protecting trees, which is at the core of The Morton Arboretum's mission,” said Koski. “As a trustee on our board, he has been an avid supporter of the arboretum's growth into its second century to make a positive impact on people's lives. During his tenure as chair of the board, the arboretum raised $74 million for a series of initiatives to advance scientific research, tree conservation, and new plant development, in addition to improving essential curatorial facilities and enhancing education for children. Chris has a strong penchant for involvement in philanthropic work and to help others. He is a very caring person.”
Bob Schillerstrom, a fellow Arboretum board member, echoed Koski's sentiments. Schillerstrom has served on The Morton Arboretum board with Chris for a number of years and refers to Chris and Susan as “the best people around.” Schillerstrom served as DuPage County Board Chairman from 1998 to 2010 and originally knew Chris through the engineering firm that Chris launched in 1986. According to Schillerstrom, if a major problem arose in DuPage County that needed engineering expertise, he would call Chris.
“Chris' company is very good at what they do,” said Schillerstrom. “He's a good, honest guy who you can count on. Giving back is a focus for both Chris and Susan. Chris assumes a leadership position in whatever he does, and he financially supports the causes he cares about. I love Chris and Susan.”
Dan Wagner, senior vice president for government relations at Inland Real Estate Group and former aide to Schillerstrom during his tenure as county board chairman, also spoke fondly of the Burkes.
“Chris and Susan are the salt of the earth,” said Wagner. “The engineering firm Chris founded helped create the best stormwater management program in the country under the watch of former DuPage County Board Chairman Jack Knuepfer. Chris is the most honest and trustworthy person you'll ever meet. He's a self-made, successful businessman. He supports civic engagement and volunteerism. Chris and Susan are committed to protecting our environment and sustainability. That, and their championing of education will be their legacy.”
College of DuPage
Chris and Susan are both educators at heart and are strong supporters of College of DuPage. Given Chris' background as an engineer, it should come as no surprise that he is a strong proponent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and believes that College of DuPage mirrors the future of DuPage County.
He has been actively involved with College of DuPage Foundation for many years. Karen Kuhn, executive director of College of DuPage Foundation, expressed her admiration for Chris' work.
“Chris is modest, kind, and strategic,” said Kuhn. “He is a public servant at his core and sees the good that can be done through collaborative partnerships and philanthropy. Chris is always at the ready to help students at COD whether it be through the Foundation's scholarship fund, emergency support, or engaging with students who aspire to be engineers. Chris and Susan's service to DuPage County and beyond is inspiring. We are lucky to have such advocates for higher education willing to partner with us.”
Chris also teaches engineering classes at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he encourages students to get involved.
“Join boards,” Chris said. “Share your intellect and expertise. Serve in roles where you can use your knowledge. Don't let others carry the weight. Break the mold of engineers who only think about their work.”
These are principles by which Chris lives. He also encourages all young people to be civic-minded, to know their politicians and to vote, and always give back to their community. Chris has declined to accept a salary for teaching at UIC and has requested that the money be used to fund scholarships at the school. Contributions from the Burke family continue to improve the quality of education for those institutions close to their heart. As a special tribute to Chris' mom, the couple established the Rosemary Burke Scholarship at UIC and Purdue.
Four generations of the Burke family, including three of the couple's four children, have received 38 degrees (and counting) from Purdue. In recognition of their support and commitment to Purdue, the university named its civil engineering graduate program the Christopher B. and Susan S. Burke Graduate Program.
Mike Sitrick, DuPage Foundation president and CEO, is keenly aware of the impact the Burke family and CBBEL have had on the local community through their generous philanthropy and service and is grateful for their support.
“Christopher B. Burke Engineering, Ltd. and the Burke family have been steadfast supporters of DuPage Foundation for nearly two decades. From their annual sponsorship of our fall benefit, to their past investments in our Next Generation Initiative and other community-focused initiatives, we are grateful for their partnership in delivering coordinated impact on behalf of our community.”
From their tireless advocacy and support for education and the environment to their countless investments throughout our community and beyond, we can all be thankful for the important contributions made by the Burke family and Christopher B. Burke Engineering, Ltd.
A special thanks to everyone who contributed to this story: Bob Hutchinson, president of Wheaton Bank & Trust; Jill Koski, president and CEO of The Morton Arboretum; Karen Kuhn, executive director of College of DuPage Foundation; Brook McDonald, president/CEO of The Conservation Foundation; Bob Schillerstrom, past DuPage County Board Chairman; Mike Sitrick, president & CEO of DuPage Foundation; and Dan Wagner, senior vice president for government relations for The Inland Real Estate Group.
The Leaders & Legacies series is brought to you by the Legacy Society of DuPage Foundation. Suggestions for future stories can be sent to Robin Carroll, director of marketing and communications, at email@example.com.
Interested in learning more about how you can make an impact or create a legacy for your community and favorite causes? Learn more at dupagefoundation.org or call (630) 665-5556. DuPage Foundation is located at 3000 Woodcreek Drive, Suite 310, in Downers Grove, IL 60515.
The Conservation Foundation offers 10 things people can do, not just on Earth Day, but throughout the year
• Waste less water — install a rain barrel and conserve water
• Use native plants in the home landscape to attract pollinators, butterflies and songbirds
• Reduce or eliminate using chemicals on your lawn
• Waste less salt — learn the proper way to use salt during winter
• Volunteer to help clean your local river, stream or pond
• Volunteer to help restore a local woodland or prairie for better wildlife habitat
• Waste less electricity — use LED lights in your home
• Plant trees in your yard and community
• Purchase an electric car — it's the future!
• Install solar panels on your roof
Making a differenceTwo significant, local Earth Day events sponsored by The Conservation Foundation will offer an opportunity for anyone to pitch in and make a difference.• The Conservation Foundation's 2023 Earth Day benefit dinner will be 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday, April 27, at Bobak's Signature Events in Woodridge. Tickets are $125 per person and can be purchased online at
www.theconservationfoundation.org.• Volunteers are also needed for the organization's upcoming DuPage River Sweep Project from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, May 20. This annual event is a countywide self-coordinated stream cleanup held each spring in which volunteers are encouraged to pick up debris in and along local waterways. Sign up at