Father, farmer, friend. Born on Jan. 23, 1936, in Blenheim, Ont.; died on April 23, 2014, in Chatham, Ont., of colorectal cancer, aged 78.
Nicknames are often a sign of respect and admiration from family and friends, and Ronald Burk had three. The first was the affectionate, if obvious, Burky. The second was “the Baron” and dates back to a time when Ron and his buddies were having a good time down in the States and he told a pretty young woman that he was a big cattle baron in Canada. Whether she believed him or not, the name stuck.
His third nickname, “the Legend,” was coined by one of his sons-in-law, who was impressed by the fact that, because he lived alone, Ron could relax on the couch and watch sports whenever he wanted, shower when he felt like it, and eat cookies, chocolate and pudding every day
Ron left school early to take over the family farm, near Blenheim, Ont., from his father. In the early years, he raised black Angus cattle and pigs. He eventually moved to crops – seed corn, wheat, soy beans, tobacco – on acres of beautiful, fertile land. In 1964, he married Helen Crawford and they settled in the old homestead house, with a huge oil stove in the living room to heat the whole building. There they had three children, Noeline, Ryan and Margie. Ryan, who was born with cerebral palsy, passed away at age 17.
When they later built a new house, it became a symbol of success for Dad – as well as providing a much better layout for hosting hockey parties for the Morpeth Oldtimers team, on which he was a defenceman.
Dad never treated his daughters as girls. When he needed help, my sister and I were expected to pull our weight throwing bales of straw into the barn and hoeing vegetables well past sunset. Many of our cousins found their first job on our farm, detasselling corn, hoeing beans or harvesting tobacco.
Dad always held true to his beliefs, and made sure his opinions were heard. He never let his daughters back away from hard work or uncomfortable situations, which helped us become strong women who aren’t afraid to speak out about issues in which we believe.
We knew that Dad had a reputation, especially in his youth, as a bit of a trouble maker. He had some great times, but there were difficult years with regard to his relationships. In his early 70s, he was diagnosed with bipolar disease, which answered a lot of questions. Periods of manic behaviour can result in embarrassing acts and words, but he always had the support of friends and family who knew that beneath the coat of Mr. Hyde was a good guy who would give you the shirt off his back. The diagnosis gave him a great deal of peace in his later years. He was meticulous about taking his medications, as they helped the world make sense. Although he may have seemed a different person from his earlier cavalier, boisterous and outgoing personality, he was much happier when he was in control of his mental health.
The legendary Burky will live on in his six grandchildren, who will hear many memorable stories about him. They may tell their friends that Grandpa Burk was a cattle baron with some of the best growing land in Canada, who had many friends, and who had his priorities straight when it came to what was important in life.
We like to think of him now, taking a big breath of fresh air, walking through the fields estimating when it will dry up enough so he can plow to get ready for planting.
Noeline Burk is Ron’s eldest daughter.