Coleman P. Burke, a 1970 law alumnus so dedicated to the planet that he committed $10 million to launch an environmental law center here last year, died Nov. 8 at his home in New York.
Known affectionately to his friends and fellow alumni as “Coley,” Burke brought an inquisitive spirit to his law classes and fierce competitiveness to hockey contests during his time at Case Western Reserve. Both qualities helped him forge a lifelong friendship with Leon Gabinet, Burke’s professor and fellow player on the ice.
Burke arrived in Cleveland after three years as a naval officer in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, then returned to the Northeast to join his family’s firm, Burke & Burke. In 1983 he turned his attention to Manhattan real estate, founding an enterprise that helped transform Chelsea into one of New York’s most trendy districts.
Even as he excelled in business, Burke maintained an active interest in the natural world. For more than 40 years, Burke engaged in organizations such as the National Audubon Society, the National Forest Foundation, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the New York Botanical Garden and the Wildlife Conservation Society, among others.
He also developed a passion for paleontology, even leading an expedition in Argentina that resulted in the discovery of a new species of dinosaur later named in his honor—Orkoraptor Burkei.
In 2010, Burke honored his mentor Gabinet with an endowed professorship focused on tax, trusts and estates. Nine years later his gift to establish the Coleman P. Burke Center for Environmental Law became the largest ever in the school’s history.
“By establishing an endowed professorship, and later by endowing our new environmental law center, Coley Burke has been one of our most generous and inspiring alumni leaders,” said law school co-dean Jessica Berg. “He was an exceptional individual who understood clearly that the selfless acts of generosity made in the present can leave a mark for generations to come. He will be missed terribly.”
Her colleague, co-dean Michael Scharf, noted that the gift already has enhanced the school’s stature in environmental law.
“Within a year of [the center’s] launch,” Scharf said, “our environmental law program received a top ranking by PreLaw Magazine. That would not have been possible without his support.
Earlier this year, Burke received the President’s Award for Visionary Achievement—a recognition of individuals who have distinguished themselves through exceptional philanthropic service to the university, the world and humanity. His lasting impact will be an extension of a shared vision that together the university community, and Burke’s wife, Susan, and their family will continue to fulfill and surpass.
“Coley Burke’s generosity has enabled us to expand our environmental programs and serve students with a deep interest in environmental law,” said Jonathan Adler, director of the Burke Center. “His legacy will live on in the Center’s work and the students that it helps train to be effective environmental lawyers.”