Thousands run the Twin Cities Marathon each fall. Martin “Skip” Burke was the man who made the event happen.
As the marathon’s first president, Burke helped lead the effort to combine two competing races — the City of Lakes and the St. Paul marathons — to create in 1982 the “Most Beautiful Urban Marathon in America,” a 26.2-mile run that starts in downtown Minneapolis and ends at the State Capitol in St. Paul.
“Without Skip’s vision to join two cities, we would not be the great race we are today,” said Virginia Brophy Achman, the Twin Cities Marathon’s executive director.
Burke died Jan. 12 of Parkinson’s disease at his home overlooking Lake Minnetonka. He was 79.
By day a prominent trial attorney at the Faegre and Benson law firm in Minneapolis, he was an avid handball player at the Minneapolis Athletic Club until a back injury sidelined him. To meet his need for competition and replace his addiction to alcohol with something healthy, he turned to running, said his son, Forrest, of Orono.
At 41, Burke ran his first marathon — Grandma’s in Duluth. He ran 90 in his career, including the Boston Marathon several times, his son said. Burke provided commentary along with WCCO-TV sports anchor Ralph Jon Fritz when the first Twin Cities Marathons were televised.
Burke was born in Green Bay, Wis. He was a three-star athlete at Blake School in Hopkins and the unlikely hero of the 1955 Minnesota Independent School State Basketball Tournament when he sank a game-tying basket in the closing minute of the game, eventually won by the Blake Bears, according the school’s yearbook.
After graduating from Yale University and the University of Chicago Law School, Burke joined Faegre and Benson (now Faegre Baker Daniels) in 1962. He served as chair of the firm’s general litigation practice group and made a local and national reputation for himself as a successful trial lawyer until he retired in 1999.
“Skip was a consummate trial lawyer,” said Bridget Ahmann, a partner at Faegre Baker Daniels. “He was smart, smooth and a great storyteller. Juries loved him, and his clients loved him for that reason. He was also a mentor to many of us, who learned this art by observing him.”
After a year in retirement, Burke returned to law when 3M called and asked for his help in defending an asbestos litigation case. He later teamed up with Jerry W. Blackwell to form the firm Blackwell Burke, which handles high-stakes complex litigation, class actions and trials.
“Skip Burke was a shining example of excellence as an attorney, commitment as a partner and loyalty as a friend,” Blackwell said. “He set a standard of achievement for our firm that remains our polestar to this day.”
Burke also was a foster parent for teens recovering from addiction through Alcoholics Anonymous. “He wrestled with demons and struggled with anxiety and depression, but he took those challenges, weaknesses, and turned them into amazing strength,” his son said. “He was a role model and mentor for adults and teens finding their way to sobriety.”
Burke ran Poulet, a Minneapolis restaurant, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. He also founded the “One If by Land, Two If by Sea” art fair that ran for many years on Maxwell Bay on Lake Minnetonka.
In addition to his son Forrest, he is survived by his wife, Susan, of Inver Grove Heights; another son, Nicholas, of Orono; former wives Jean Burke and Barbara Forster of Minneapolis and Margaret Burke of Naples, Fla.; a stepdaughter and 10 grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. March 12 at the Lafayette Club, 2800 Northview Road, Minnetonka Beach.