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LONG-RUNNING ACT

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are foot racing’s odd couple: a blue-eyed, silver-haired black man and his green-eyed, blond female partner.

A volatile personality and the epitome of cool.

Fire and ice.

An idea-a-minute man, and a woman whose questions are, “What will your idea cost us and what can we make from it?”

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The salesman’s yes comes easily for Bill Burke, president of the Los Angeles Marathon. The accountant’s no comes a little harder for Marie Patrick, the race’s executive vice president, but her answer is even more direct.

Without Burke’s yes, the race would not be run for the 15th time Sunday morning in the scope it has adopted. Without Patrick’s no, it might not have been run at all.

“In most organizations, you have complementary people like that,” says John Tope, who has handled elite runners for several races, including the Los Angeles Marathon. “With Bill, sometimes you need a person who can slow him down.”

Added Brooks Roddan, once public relations director for the race, “They are complementary, but they are also diametrically opposed . . . and I think the race reflects both of their personalities.”

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Those personalities wouldn’t seem likely to coexist, but they have been doing so for 17 years, since they got together running the tennis venue for the 1984 L.A. Olympics.

Burke was the event’s commissioner, tapped by Peter Ueberroth and told to run it like a business.

Patrick was working for ProServ, running tennis tournaments.

“A friend of mine called me and said, ‘You need to be out here because of the Olympics,’ ” Patrick recalled. “She said, ‘You need to talk with Bill Burke because he needs you.’ ”

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All Burke knew about tennis was how to play it in the park.

Patrick was the answer, and the two developed a relationship whose days continued when the Olympic torch went out.

“Bill knew about fishing and playing tennis,” Patrick said. “But he had a good time here, and for six-seven days everybody returned his phone calls. Then it was back to being Bill Burke.

“And after the Olympics, what was I going to do? I had some ideas. Bill sat down with me and we put together lists. His proposal was that we give ourselves six months and make a list, then if it didn’t work, we’d go our separate ways.”

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Burke says the list had 30 or 31 items. Patrick says it was 25 or 30. Both agree the Los Angeles Marathon was far from the top, but that it got there when Burke was cornered at a banquet in Beverly Hills by business people who said the city needed something to keep the Olympic spirit alive.

Burke was told to call the City Council. Instead, he called Mayor Tom Bradley and was told it would take two or three months to get the idea through City Hall.

It took a year and a half.

By then, the odd couple had learned things about putting on a race. Just as important, they have learned things about each other that keep the business going.

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Chief among them is Patrick’s serving as a governor to keep Burke from over-revving his creative engine.

Take the day he had another of his million-dollar ideas.

“He came to me and said he wanted to offer $1 million to a woman who could win the race,” Patrick remembers, meaning the entire race, not just the women’s division. “Now it’s a fascinating idea. Could it be done? I don’t know.

“We talked about it a few days. He said, ‘You don’t know, maybe there’s some super woman somewhere in the world who could run well enough to win the race. She would deserve $1 million.’ ”

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Finally, Patrick persuaded him to forget it. No, it wasn’t because of the $1 million they weren’t going to have to pay anyway.

“She thought it would be dismissed as just a publicity stunt,” Burke says, probably rightly so.

His ideas have no bounds.

“What drives me nuts is, I think about a composer and I’m trying to figure out when he or she walks down the street, what do they hear in their heads?” Burke says. “Do they hear music, or do they hear individual notes or sections of an orchestra? You ever wonder about that?

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“I’m the same, but only in a different art form. When I walk down the street, I see events. I see promotions everywhere. It’s like notes in my head and the notes play music. I can’t help it.”

About 99% of the music is so off-key that it fades off into idea heaven before it can be processed into a proposal. The other 1% becomes grist for the discussion mill with his partner.

“Her automatic response is, ‘I have to think about this,’ ” Burke says. “If I walked in there and said, ‘Marie, I’ve got $2 million on my desk, do you want half of it?’ she’d say, ‘Let me think about it.’

“Then she’d think, ‘What do I have to do for this half of $2 million?’ ”

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“Some people are put off by that. I happen to think that it’s an attribute I don’t have. . . . It’s an attribute I wish I had. It’s also an attribute other people wish I had.”

It’s something that comes naturally to Patrick. Where the word “million” comes easily to Burke, she thinks in smaller pieces of a big puzzle.

“I know you can’t write a paycheck without money in the bank,” Patrick says.

“Bill always wants to do everything, and I recognize when he wants to do something very much. With those ideas, instead of flat not saying yes, we try to work at it to find a way to do it.

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“Bill will seize the moment, and I like to see it as a part of a whole package.”

From that, she exudes the demeanor of someone who is difficult to work with, particularly when compared to Burke. One former race vendor says when she called his company’s office, the recipient was told, “The dragon lady’s on the phone.”

Another calls her the “executive vice president of no.”

She recoils from that, but admits, “If that’s the way I’m portrayed in the community, that’s OK. I believe that things have to be done in logical order: 1, 2, 3. Bill and I have good rapport. I know that people go to Bill for things, and hopefully he’ll say that we’ll get back to you.”

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Sometimes he does.

“I think that ultimately Bill has the final say on everything,” says Anne Roberts, the elite athlete recruiter for the New York Marathon who did the same job for Los Angeles until being replaced abruptly this year by Floridian Bill Orr, a move made by Patrick because “We felt we wanted our own guy.”

“Bill is . . . the visionary,” Roberts says. “He knows that in this business, you can’t always take the safe road. If Bill weren’t a visionary, the race wouldn’t be as good as it is. I think it’s impossible to push Bill into anything he doesn’t want to be in. If he feels strongly about something, he’ll do it.”

Patrick agrees.

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“Bill gets very excited about things,” she says. “I know the vision he has, and the enthusiasm and the excitement. If he’s excited about an idea, I’ve got to respect it. It’s not about winning or losing [a point]. It’s about doing the right thing.”

In the end, it’s about making money. The Los Angeles Marathon is run as a for-profit business, and though the profits are never disclosed, there are indications that they are substantial.

Patrick handles the money, deals with the details, works with the race volunteers and leaves the out-front work to Burke, who plainly relishes it as much as he does wading in the swamp that is City Hall.

Patrick prefers to keep her feet dry.

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Burke flashes his temper, yells at people and moves on to another idea.

Patrick is uncomfortable with rage, so Burke’s is directed elsewhere.

“I don’t remember ever saying a word in anger to Marie Patrick,” he says. “You can’t have anyone treat you as nice as she’s treated me for as long as she has and get angry with her.

“There are people who like me, and people who like her. And people who dislike me and people who dislike her. But we don’t dislike each other.”

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Instead, they understand each other and their differences, and they use them.

“The odd couple?” says Patrick. “Yes, we’re very different people, but it works.”

Sunday, it will work for the 15th consecutive year.


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