Artist, mother, crossword puzzle maven
Helen Burke, a longtime resident of Pomona and Claremont, died peacefully on October 4 following complications from a stroke. She was 89.
Ms. Burke was born on February 15, 1923 to Lithuanian immigrants, Anthony and Mary Lopat, who came to America in the early 1900s seeking opportunity and refuge from war-torn Europe. They settled in Tolleston, Indiana and later moved to nearby Crown Point, where they raised their 3 children, Stanley, Joseph and Helen.
True to the American immigrant tradition, Mr. and Ms. Lopat came to the United States with no English skills, working as a manual laborer and hotel maid, respectively. Mr. Lopat later landed a coveted job in the steel mills, which he held throughout the Depression. As a result of tireless hard work and thrift, they eventually purchased their own farm and provided educational opportunities for all 3 children. Stanley became a physician and settled in Upland; Joseph, an engineer, remained in Indiana; and Helen, always artistically inclined, became a successful commercial artist.
Although Ms. Burke’s parents encouraged education and pursuit of the American dream, they were initially skeptical of their daughter’s aspirations toward an artistic career. So she volunteered for the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and used the educational benefits from the G.I. Bill to attend a commercial art school. Ms. Burke characterized her time in the service, which she spent working in various offices, as easy. “It was nothing,” she would say, after working on a farm under the strict supervision of her mother.
After the war, Ms. Burke worked at an art studio in Chicago, commuting by train from the family farm. As her work became published in newspapers throughout the Chicago area, she and her family recognized not only the visual beauty of her artistic talent but also the fulfillment of a successful career. In her early 20s, she met Arley Burke and they married in 1949. In 1953, the couple decided to move to California, following Ms. Burke’s brother, Stanley, who had opened his medical practice in Upland, and Jewel, Mr. Burke’s sister, who had moved to Riverside with her husband, Frank.
The Burkes settled in the new community of Westmont in Pomona. While raising 3 young children, they worked for local businesses, including General Dynamics, and were active in the Pomona Elks Club. Mr. Burke ran for Pomona City Council in 1965 (he came in second place). In 1967, the family relocated to Claremont, where they fell in love with the college town—its culture, beauty, and warm, friendly people.
In the 1970s, Ms. Burke began working at Pomona College in the alumni office. After decades as a full-time mom, she also picked up her brushes again, returning to her artistic pursuits. Ms. Burke retired in the 1980s and later moved to the Claremont Villas Senior Apartments, enjoying her many new friends and easy access to the Village until she suffered a debilitating stroke in 2008.
Many knew Ms. Burke as a regular at the Village Grille, where she was one of the first to arrive each day, ready for her morning coffee, toast, crossword puzzle and lively conversation with friends at the counter. She loved people and was generous with her time and talents. As word of Ms. Burke’s artistic ability spread, she often received requests for family portraits, which she never declined. Well into her 80s, she produced many beautiful oil paintings for a nominal fee for anyone who asked.
She was also known as a crossword puzzle maven, and became a repository for friends’ unused puzzle pages. Ms. Burke was so good that she was approached by Korean immigrant neighbors to help them learn English through the use of crossword puzzles, which she did gladly. She also served as a volunteer for Claremont’s hospice program, and helped many families care for loved ones during their final season of life.
Ms. Burke will be missed for her beauty inside and out, her strong values, her devotion to faith and family and her cheerful and generous disposition, according to her family.
“After a lifetime of serving others, she leaves us with warm, happy memories, as well as a collection of paintings and drawings to serve as a legacy of her extraordinary artistic ability to be enjoyed for generations,” her daughter, Arleen, said.
The family would like to express their deep appreciation to the nurses and staff at Inland Christian Home in Ontario for their loving, compassionate care during Ms. Burke’s illness.
Ms. Burke was preceded in death by her husband, Arley, in 2002. She is survived by her children, Arleen, Carol and Bill, and by her grandchildren, Coretta, Mitchell, Kirstie and Kyle.
All those who would like to join in a celebration of Ms. Burke’s life are invited to a service in her memory, to be held at Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Church in Claremont on Thursday, October 11 at 9:30 a.m.