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Thu April 10, 2014
Lexington Mourns Longtime Anti-Poverty Advocate Jack Burch
Lexington is remembering perhaps its most well-known champion for the poor.
When you walk into the Community Action Council offices off West High Street, you’re walking into the house Jack built. Though he probably wouldn’t phrase it that way.
"He was never in it for this organization... He was in it for the people we helped," says Community Action Council Planning, Communication, and Advancement director Charlie Lanter.
While Lexington’s council had a long history, being launched in mid-60s as part of the War on Poverty, the organization Burch inherited as director in 1979 was on life support. The council had been whittled down to a staff of two.
"The federal government had basically shut the place down. They had said close your doors, get your act together, and then we'll talk. And so Jack was hired into a situation where there wasn't a lot of confidence in the organization," Lanter says.
In 2013, Burch recalled the his start at CAC to WUKY, saying, "We were sort on this national list of community action agencies that were dysfunctional. As of now, we're one of only ten community action agencies out of the one thousand in the country that's designated a program of excellence."
Just how the council reemerged from the doldrums to become a national model is a story of determination, a keen eye for recruiting talent, and a willingness to push the debate on poverty out of the comfort zone.
"He was courageous and passionate when it came to standing up and speaking truth to power about issues regarding low income people, poor people, African-American people, disenfranchised people. [He was] fearless and did not worry about what the repercussions may be to him personally," Lexington-Fayette Urban League president P.G. Peeples says.
In explaining Burch’s success, colleagues also point to his ability to master all angles – forging a wide network of relationships, strategizing, and understanding the politics behind the issues.
Lanter recalls his former boss as a man who was sometimes hard to separate from his mission.
"Jack could be challenging to work for. He didn't take no for an answer. He expected perfection. He expected the highest level of performance and he always expected that the participants come first. And if that meant you were working late and weekends, that's what it meant. It could be frustrating, but at the same time it was so rewarding because the end outcome was so positive," he says.
Burch’s commitment to the cause had deep roots. Though born into a privileged family in Memphis, Tennessee, Jack was exposed early on to civil rights activism and went on to become a courier for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, delivering mail to movement leaders, such as Jesse Jackson.
It was a foundation that continued to serve Burch throughout his 34 years at the helm of the Community Action Council.
"Jack was never apologetic about the work he did for people with low income. He was the loudest voice in the room and he knew that was his job," Lanter recalls.
Burch retired in 2013 and, despite a lung cancer prognosis of one to three years, still had a long list of plans – travel, gardening, and one of his favorite hobbies, glass-blowing. That he didn’t get a chance to do more for himself is a shame, his colleagues say.
Lanter agrees, adding that he was scheduled to meet Jack today for coffee. The topic: a fund he set up in his will to fund grassroots advocacy for the poor. And while that seat may be empty, Lanter says Burch’s presence will still be felt across the Bluegrass for decades to come – thanks to the strength of the organization he left behind.
"He didn't ever want to be the kind of executive director or leader who when he retired the place just falls apart. He took pride in building a team and building an environment where he could step away and the train just kept right on running," Lanter says.
Jack Burch passed away from lung cancer on Wednesday. He was 68.