There was no thought of this present sad day mourning the loss of Brother Peter Gerald Burke on that sunny day in February 1961 when we boarded the train at South Brisbane station heading south for Sydney and the Juniorate of the Christian Brothers at Strathfield. Gerry had just graduated from St Joseph’s Gregory Terrace, a prestigious Christian Brothers College in Brisbane, his home town, and four fellow Seniors accompanied him on the train that day along with a dozen or so excited aspirants from the coastal cities and country towns of Australia’s ‘Sunshine State’, Queensland, setting out on the greatest adventure of their lives.
Gerry soon distinguished himself as a gifted student of language. This was to be a marked feature of his life, combining academic achievement with a great deal of personal enjoyment. Though tall and heavy-set, he was no athlete and did not feature in the round of physical activity which marked the training regimen of the young men in formation in those days. He was quiet and reserved but able to mix well in a small group. He valued his own time and space and retreated into these safe havens quite a lot as the years went on. And yet he was friendly, approachable, and very open to people, and was consequently much loved by all. In fact his tendency to remain apart from the herd, even to the extent of absenting himself from a good number of gatherings, even of the Brothers, gained him the reputation of being something of a phantom. That he could laugh about this and that others did not blame him for it demonstrated the willingness of his confreres to respect the sacredness of his personal space and his genuine need for time apart.
Yet he most conscientiously fulfilled his professional duties as educator when, after the years of formation were through, he emerged to enter the hurly-burly of the classroom. I lived in community with him only once some thirty years after we had met that day on the south-bound train. The students of the College where we laboured had a quaint local custom of putting new staff, whether Brothers or no, on trial, to see if they passed the test. Gerry found this trial very disturbing, as did all who had been subjected to it. He was astounded by what he perceived as his own failure, after so many years of teaching, to be able to get through the day as normally as he might have expected. He confided to the community that he had begun to doubt his own capabilities as a teacher. We were able to reassure him that we all of us had to pass this way (the Principal of course excepted) and that, after a time, it would end and he would be accepted by the students as if he had been on staff for many years. He remained unconvinced. Shortly after, perhaps to prove to himself that he still was a competent teacher, he applied for the position of Principal in a neighbouring college and was successful. This appointment did wonders for his self-confidence. Just a week before he died we were sharing a few reminiscences on that experience and agreed we should issue a tee shirt emblazoned “I survived ... College”.
On another occasion while we were driving and Gerry was at the wheel, I was glancing at an Italian language newspaper. In my halting Italian I was reading the headlines. He encouraged me to continue, correcting my pronunciation here and there, translating the odd difficult usage and explaining the syntax in great detail with evident relish. Throughout all his life this love affair with language, particularly Latin and subsequently the Romance languages - French, Italian, and most recently Spanish - was a marked feature of Gerry’s raison d’être. We had taken classes together in Latin and French all through training, with specialist tutoring in the second year of novitiate formation of a Saturday morning in an otherwise undistinguished regimen. My interest in classical Latin had been more cultural because it was spoken by ancient Romans, but Gerry’s interest was almost clinical. He had an extraordinary feel for the structure and composition of a language, its vocabulary and its complexity. He delighted in expounding it and grasped the opportunity to teach it.
In the first year when the Brothers took over the administration of St Leo’s Residential College at the University of Queensland he would come across every Saturday morning and conduct a Latin class for a group of people who were, like him, interested in the language per se or among the growing number of people who find it a help to develop their own language skills. Then, when he became the Vice-Rector Admin at the College he continued his studies and tutored willing residents in the language. During his time as Principal of the College in the north of the state, he was able to practise his Italian because there was a significant proportion of the population for whom it was if not their first language at least very familiar to them through many generations of Italian immigration.
Unfortunately Gerry’s solitary lifestyle made him very independent of fraternal advice and he would simply give his wry, sceptical smile and say everything was all right. He had been a consistent smoker since early in his days in teaching and, as well as keeping very irregular hours - the corollary of his need for solitude - he did not eat regular or nutritious meals. But while this trait could be exasperating, it did not diminish his good humour and it would have come as a complete shock to him to be taken so suddenly with such a devastating heart attack – as it did for us all.
The memory of Gerry will live long in our hearts as we recall his unique presence, albeit in every sense a fleeting one. With his gentle manner, his engaging smile, his wry humour, and his ability to endear himself to everyone whom he met, Gerry was a man without malice, rancour or ill-humour. Generous and conscientious to a fault, he went through life with a thorough sense of purpose and took solace where he could find it in the precise study of language which seemed to give purpose and direction to his own way. May his lovely spirit rest in peace and may his entry into heaven be accompanied by acclamations in any number of languages as he makes his way finally home.