Chuck and Donna Burke: Speedskating royalty, right here in Northbrook

When they picked up the phone, Chuck and Donna Burke were home at Covenant Living of Northbrook, watching Olympic speedskating.


Much of their lives centered around the sport: First as competitors, then as coaches.

Chuck Burke, 91, is the oldest surviving speed skater of the 1952 and 1956 Winter Olympics held in Oslo, Norway, and Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, respectively. He's a few months older than Gene Sandvig of Minneapolis, who just turned 91 and was Burke's teammate at those Games.

The Cortina Games were the last held on "natural" ice - a floating track carved out of the ice surface of Lake Misurina - and also the last Games not broadcast on television.

Burke competed in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events in Oslo, and the 5,000 in Cortina d'Ampezzo. He set the American Olympic record in the 10,000 at the Trials for the Oslo Games, and reset it at the 1956 Trials.

Donna Burke, a sprinter, overcame polio to become a national and North American outdoor and short track champion, before speedskating pivoted mainly indoors at places like the Northbrook Skating Club, now the Northbrook Speed Skating Club.

Donna retired from competition before women's Olympic speedskating was introduced in 1960 at Squaw Valley, California.

"She never did the (Olympic) time trials because they didn't have it for women," said Chuck, whose memories can be heard in Judy Hughes' interview series, "Northbrook Voices," for the Northbrook Public Library and Northbrook Historical Society.

Speedskating was big on the local scene, Chuck Burke recalled, with thriving Chicago high school competition and results reported in newspapers. Limited to about three months of the year outdoors, those events were hard to schedule given shifting weather and competitors' responsibilities.

"It's much fairer now, and it's much more technical and scientific now," said Chuck Burke, a member of the U.S. Speedskating Hall of Fame and among many speedskaters in the Northbrook Park District Sports Hall of Fame.

"We were strictly amateurs, more or less. Everybody had a job or (was in) school. Then, in the summer, a lot of us would bicycle race, because the two sports were good for cross-training."

Both Chuck and the former Donna MacKenzie were born and raised in Chicago, and on "rival high school skating teams," Chuck said - he at Foreman, she at Senn. They married in 1957 and moved to Northbrook in 1962.

He came from a skating family, including a father who lost his speedskating career to a broken ankle playing high school football. Football seemed to take it out of these athletes; Chuck Burke said Sandvig broke a leg playing football in the Army and couldn't compete in Oslo.

Chuck Burke's older siblings, Jack and Mary, both were in the Ice Follies, and they married skaters. Mary's son, Gary Jonland, trained with the Mount Prospect Skating Club and finished 14th in the 1,500 at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics.

After qualifying for the 1952 Olympics at 19, Chuck Burke was drafted into the Army. Without any practice, he went straight from basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas, to the Oslo Games.

Those folks were crazy about speedskating. When the United States team had been set, a Norwegian reporter arrived to interview the skaters. Burke went back to Kansas and forgot about it.

"I didn't know, but in Norway it's their national sport, so when we got off the airplane in Norway we were celebrities already," he said. "That was very new to us. People would stop you on the street and everyone wanted to talk to you, get your autograph. Around here, no one knew who we were."

After the Cortina Games, the U.S. team bopped over to Norway for the world championships. After that was completed, Burke and the late Don McDermott, the 1952 500-meter silver medalist and godfather of the Burkes' four daughters (Chicagoan Ken Henry won 500 gold that year) remained to "barnstorm" in local events, attending banquets in which "the whole town would show up," Burke said.

He described his distance events as being performed "pack-style," like current Olympics' mass-start events.

"Being a distance skater and not having the experience, we did well with the Italians and the Germans, but the Scandinavians and the Russians just were in a class all of their own," he said. "I was in the middle, lower class in the long distance. But we did the best we could."

In Oslo, speedskating events were held in Bislett Stadium, "like the Yankee Stadium of speedskating," Burke said.

Four years later in Cortina d'Ampezzo, they were held on a lake eight miles into Italy's Dolomite Mountains. Burke said the track was surrounded by a 3-foot-wide ditch dug through snow and ice to open water, creating a floating surface that allowed the ice to expand and contract without cracking.

After two Olympics, and two years in the Army during the Korean War - Pvt. Burke was stationed for a spell in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, site of the 1936 Winter Olympics - he skated and cycled a year more before retiring from competition.

Professionally, he was a pipe fitter for 32 years. Donna was a nurse. She worked at Lutheran General and Children's Memorial hospitals, and later for Dr. Donald Ryan in Northbrook.

Both of them turned to coaching for several decades, at a variety of suburban skating clubs. The Burkes began with the Northbrook Speed Skating Club early in its formation; they were recruited to coach in 1952, Chuck told "Northbrook Voices" interviewer Judy Hughes.

While Donna coached on and off until about 1984, Chuck remained coaching until he was 85 years old.

Chuck Burke's U.S. Speedskating Hall of Fame entry noted that he coached 18 national and North American champions and 16 World and Olympic Team members, and that's probably a little light. Their circle includes Olympic legends such as Dianne Holom and Nancy Swider-Peltz, and Northbrook's Beverly Burr and Eddie Rudolph Jr.

Still respected and active in the sport, the Burkes received an invitation to a watch party on Sunday for Glen Ellyn's Ethan Cepuran in Olympic team pursuit.

While Donna was always a speed skater, Chuck - who also made "ABC's Wide World of Sports" as a barrel jumper - had to decide between speed skating and figure skating. The judging aspect made up his mind.

"When you cross the line first," he said, "it's pretty hard to cheat you out of it."

  Chuck Burke, 91, of Northbrook is a former Olympic speedskater. He competed in 1952 and 1956, in Norway and Italy, respectively. Joe Lewnard/
  Chuck Burke, 91, of Northbrook is a former Olympic speedskater, and this is his framed Olympic flag. Joe Lewnard/
  Chuck Burke, 91, of Northbrook, a former Olympic speedskater, shows his medals. He set the American Olympic record in the 10,000 at the Trials for the Oslo Games, and reset it at the 1956 Trials. Joe Lewnard/
  Chuck Burke, 91, of Northbrook is a former Olympic speedskater. At center are his Olympic medals, which are framed. Joe Lewnard/
  This jacket was worn by speedskater Chuck Burke during the opening ceremonies at the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. Joe Lewnard/
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