Talmage Burke can tell a good story about the old days, when the orange haze in the Alhambra skies came from the smoke of citrus smudge pots, not smog; when the houses in his neighborhood had backyard chicken coops; when new “million dollar” City Hall was the most impressive building in town.
This evening, Alhambra’s perennial city father will be appointed mayor for the 15th time in 50 years, a milestone that the council members planned to coincide with Alhambra’s centennial. It’s time, once again, for the city to honor its 85-year-old councilman, a man whose greatest achievement earned him the title “Father of the Lowered Railroad.”
An obscure title, to be sure. But only an Alhambra resident can be expected to appreciate Burke’s being the city councilman who pushed to have the busy Southern Pacific railroad line sunk into a 30-foot trench in the mid-'70s, freeing up traffic crossings and giving residents the gift of a night’s sleep devoid of locomotive roars and whistles.
“It’s hard to imagine a time in Alhambra without him,” said the city historian, David Hostetler. “He is Mr. Alhambra.”
That’s just the way Burke likes it. He has been content to focus his entire life within a six-block radius that includes his modest North Olive Street house, Alhambra City Hall and his two-room law office. After his parents died, he could have inherited their Mediterranean-style estate on one of San Marino’s best-known streets. But he couldn’t bring himself to leave Alhambra.
“I just kind of got used to it and I’ve gone on, not for years, but for decades,” said Burke, who has no plans to retire when his term ends in 2004. “It just seems natural to continue.... It’s a great feeling of acceptance to have lived in one place all my life.”
Alhambra -- the 7.4-square-mile city that was among the first Los Angeles suburbs -- has made Burke “perfectly happy,” he said. “I’ve always had a very low-profile lifestyle -- I’ve just been comfortable living the way I’ve always lived.”
Youngest to Oldest
Burke has run for City Council 13 times, six of them unopposed. In 1957, he was the youngest mayor ever elected. On Tuesday he will become the oldest. He is the longest-serving elected official currently in office in California. He is the city’s only second-generation mayor, following his father, who served in the 1940s. He was the first city prosecutor.
He’s lives in a house he moved to when he was 2. He has been married to Lisa Burke for 45 years. Every August they go to Hawaii on vacation. He always buys a used Cadillac when he needs a car. He likes to meet people at 11 a.m. in City Hall. “It’s all a pattern, I guess,” Burke said.
Burke’s place in Alhambra today is like that of a respected grandfather, said City Councilman Paul Talbot, who is overseeing the city’s centennial events. “Given term limits, given the fact people run for higher office, given the demands of today, Talmage will be the last politician of his time. No one else is going to get 50 years.”
“Everything has changed, but he can still get up and mosey around downtown,” Talbot said.
Organizing Burke celebrations has been somewhat of a civic pastime. There was the 1983 dinner at Almansor golf club for his 30th council anniversary. There was the surprise party at the Atlantic Palace theaters for his 40th. Two city parks and a senior citizens apartment complex bear his name. There are plans for Talmage V. Burke Way.
By Burke’s count, 23 buildings in town have plaques bearing his name.
“People kept thinking it was coming to an end, but it never did,” Talbot said.
In 2003, for his golden anniversary, Burke will be treated to a luau because of his penchant for Hawaiian vacations. The venue for this decade’s party? The Alhambra Historical Museum.
On the eve of his citywide honor, folks around town said it just didn’t seem appropriate to criticize their elder.
“I didn’t run against him, I was running for a City Council seat,” said Gay Toltl Kinman, who challenged Burke in the 1996 and 2000 elections. “I just felt I could do a better job, and I ran a positive campaign.” Burke’s 2000 race against Kinman was the closet he’s come to losing, with 54% to her 45%.
If Alhambra can claim a first family, it would be the Burkes. Talmage’s father, Montivel, was elected city commissioner in 1942 and two years later was elected to the state Assembly. Montivel, a founder of the People’s Finance and Thrift Co. of Alhambra in 1924, built up the family holdings, including 72 apartment units on North First Street and other land in Alhambra, which were inherited by Burke and his sister.
After graduation from Alhambra High School in 1935, Talmage traveled 12 miles to college, graduating from USC Law School in 1943. He worked as attorney in Alhambra, handling mainly estate and divorce cases.
At age 39 he married a 21-year-old clerk in his law office. But he didn’t like her name, Gertrude. “It didn’t fit her exotic good looks,” he said. So he started calling her Lisa, the name she goes by today. The Burkes have a son and a daughter who live out of state, and six grandchildren.
No Higher Ambition
Reapportionment created a Democratic state Assembly district in Alhambra and, as a Republican, Burke said he never considered running for higher office.
As the city’s population grew increasingly Asian, he said he worked to get to know his new neighbors. He has become a fixture at their events and says they are his biggest supporters at the polls.
“He doesn’t mind going for the Asian vote when he’s running” and he attends a lot of Chinese dinners, said Alhambra resident and anesthesiologist Tim Sui. “He gives respect and he also gets it.”
Burke paid for all but the two most recent campaigns by himself, drawing on the holdings that his father established and on his law practice income. According to his most recent statement of economic interests, dated March 31, Burke’s investments, assets and property are valued between $420,000 and $4.2 million, although he said a recent appraisal puts the value of the land at about $8 million. His income from his law practice was between $10,000 and $100,000, according to the documents.
Burke, a large man who now must drive the few blocks from home to City Hall because of arthritic knees, said his secret to political longevity has been his determination to stay above the political fray. “Never show rancor, never get polemic in any way,” he said.
“He’s avoided controversy; that’s how you stay in office,” said Barbara Messina, 63, who served on the council with him in the late 1980s and ‘90s. “The city has been his whole life.”
Second behind the lowered railroad project, Burke likes to boast of his financially conservative decision in 1960, when he insisted that the new $1-million City Hall be paid for in cash. Recently, he has been a part of the council majority that hasn’t been shy about tearing down parts of old Main Street for a trendy makeover.
But perhaps his most clever career move was getting the city attorney in 1976 to exempt him from Alhambra’s successful ballot measure establishing term limits.
“A couple of councilmen,” he said, “took great exception to how long I had been around and said I needed to retire. They hatched up the idea of term limits to get rid of me.” But, Burke said, “I used an attorney for the city, I knew how these things worked.”
He said he asked the city attorney to write the measure to read: “No person shall be a candidate for election to the office for three consecutive four-year terms, provided that the limitation shall not apply to incumbents in office on the date of the approval of this amendment.”
“I was grandfathered in,” Burke said.