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Petaluma father the glue to four-generation family

A retired pharmacist and father of six, Bill Burk has never experienced the empty nest syndrome. It’s been decades since his last child moved out, but the family home in Petaluma is like a magnet for the close-knit Burks.

It’s a rare weekend or weeknight when one of his grown kids or their spouses doesn’t stop by to watch a Giants game, cook dinner together or seek some sound advice.

The senior Burk, 82, shares a tight bond with the entire family, sons- and daughters-in-law included. Their love, admiration and respect for Burk has only deepened in recent years as he’s coped with the devastating loss of his wife of 56 years, Carol.

He was her primary caregiver as she struggled with the debilitating effects of primary progressive multiple sclerosis, which over four decades robbed her of her ability to walk and care for herself. She died nearly four years ago, leaving an enormous void within the family.

“When Mom passed, at one point Dad thought we’d drift apart,” said daughter Marie McCarville. “He’s just as much the glue. It was them together. We’ll always be close, even when Dad is gone.”

She and her siblings credit their father with setting an example of love, loyalty and grace at its purest. Never once, they say, did their father express anger, frustration or resentment as his wife’s disease progressed.

He retired 20 years ago to care for her full-time, worried that his children were spending too much time aiding their mother when they were pursuing careers and starting families.

Raising independent kids was always a desire for the couple.

“I think we wanted very much for them to become independent, because at some point we’re not going to be around,” Burk said. He paused to laugh. “We almost overdid that.”

His children all have college degrees, professional jobs and a wide range of talents and interests that developed when they were students in elementary and high school at St. Vincent’s parochial school in Petaluma.

Teri Burk, 58, is a physical therapist who practices in Petaluma and Sebastopol, where she resides. Kathy Burk-Hise, 57, lives in Idaho and is an architectural historian. Bill Burk, 56, and Mike Burk, 55, are both engineers in Southern California. Penngrove resident McCarville, 53, is a geologist. Kelly Burk, 51, lives in Sebastopol and is a singer-songwriter and actress with a day job as a project manager in a municipal building department.

The family includes seven grandchildren and three young great-grandchildren living across California, but none farther than a phone call away from Grandpa Burk.

It’s a relief to him that his family still gravitates home.

“I just like to have family around,” he said. “I enjoy having them here.”

Although his children may disagree, he insists they are the ones who’ve inspired him.

“I’ve actually learned more from them than they did from me,” he said.

Burk acknowledges he wasn’t around the house much when his children were growing up. He often worked six days a week, typically 10 or 12 hours, filling prescriptions at a local drugstore, explaining medications and reassuring customers — and then racing home at bedtime to kiss his kids goodnight.

“Carol was the one who took the burden,” he said. “All I had to do was go to work. How I survived was having a wife who knew how to handle six kids.”

By the time the two oldest kids were driving as teens, they were doing much of the family driving and grocery shopping for the household. The younger siblings pitched in, but everyone recognized their mother was in charge, even as her health declined.

“We used to say Mom ate nails for breakfast,” Teri Burk said. “And wore rose-colored glasses,” added McCarville.

Their mother was firm but understanding, always loving, always optimistic – and always knowing.

A pretty and petite registered nurse who stood a foot shorter than her husband’s 6-foot frame, Carol Burk will always be remembered as the beloved matriarch of the family.

Bill Burk, through his steadfast strength and devotion, “is the gold standard of integrity,” Kelly Burk said. “He never had delusions of grandeur, never thought the grass was greener.”

She and her siblings say their father’s daily actions and outlook throughout their childhood – and adult years – have set an example that’s tough to match.

“He is our yardstick for our spouses and for ourselves,” McCarville said.

And, quipped her sister Kelly Burk, “I can thank him for me not being married.”

The women say there isn’t anything the siblings can’t share with their father. Always interested, always curious, he often knows more about what’s happening in the large extended family than anyone else.

“He’s like a sister,” Teri Burk said. “It’s a funny thing to say, but he’s like one of the girls.”

The family describes Bill Burk as patient beyond belief, kind, compassionate, ever happy, generous, intelligent and with a great sense of humor and willingness to try anything. He’s even learned to take a selfie or two.

Gifted as a singer, he often sang Grand Ole Opry songs while caring for his wife.

“Resilient is probably the number one thing,” Teri Burk said.

“He’s also incredibly, incredibly humble,” Kelly Burk said. “And he’s a great listener. He really listens to you and remembers what you say.”

She and her siblings marvel that they grew up in a household of six kids, one telephone (anchored in the kitchen with a short cord), one television (black-and-white for what seemed forever), tight restrictions on soda and junk food and, somehow, they all managed to endure.

What they remember most was growing up in a loving home, playing and talking as kids and sitting down together for dinner. A few snow trips, beach days and vacations to visit grandparents stand out; their mother’s mobility limitations mostly kept the family at home, unable to travel together.

Their father’s devotion to his wife and family, and the example he set, are what they treasure most.

“There were unspoken behaviors. We were sort of mirroring our parents in terms of respect and consideration,” Teri Burk said. “We were raised to be tough. We’re strong kids.”

On Father’s Day, the family will gather at Burk’s home on a quiet street in west Petaluma to share conversations, pizza and beer.

As always, good humor will reign. For the patriarch, having his family gather together is the greatest gift of all.

He credits his kids with always stepping up, as children, teens and as adults.

“I didn’t have to ask for anything. It was always taken care of,” he said. “I was along for the ride.”

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.