There are a lot of things to know about Islander Bob Burkholder, who died early Friday morning, September 13, at the age of 90. But perhaps the main thing to know about him, as evident from conversations with his friends, is that he cared deeply about whatever it was he was involved in—and there were many things—sometimes to the point of what might most politely be called “feistiness.”
The Reverend Dee Eisenhauer (of Eagle Harbor Congregational Church) said about Burkholder, one of her congregants, “He was a delightful old curmudgeon.” She added that he was “very charming” and “opinionated” and “he didn’t pull any punches.”
You might recognize his name from the movie Old Goats, in which he was one of three main characters. The movie, made by Islander Taylor Guterson, earned “Official Best of the Fest” and People’s Choice recognition at the Seattle International Film Festival and won a jury prize for Best Narrative Feature in the Cinequest International Film Festival. In the film, Burkholder played one of three men who, according to the SIFF description, “refuse to go quietly into the night of retirement and old age.” Like his character, Burkholder didn’t acquiesce to the stereotypes of seniority, and up until just recently was attending the gym, singing in the EHCC choir, and meeting with his Thursday morning men’s group.
Maybe that’s because he was used to a life of intense activity. During his early years in Salinas, Kansas, Burkholder, who experienced the 1930s dust storms and economic hard times of the Depression, joined his family in subsistence hunting. In 1942, he enlisted in the Air Force and fought in the Battle of the Bulge along the Western Front. At the end of the war, he was one of the witnesses to the horrors of the Nazi death camps. He later broke his back after colliding with a land mine and was sent to a hospital in Paris to recover.
With a B.S. degree in Wildlife Management, Burkholder and his then-wife Norma moved to Alaska so he could begin an extensive career in wildlife management with the Fish and Wildlife Service. During his years with the FWS, he used his finely honed hunting skills to carry out wildlife management directives by culling herds and predators. He took flying lessons and became an experienced if often reckless aviator. He also studied wolves, authored “Movements and Behavior of the Wolf Pack in Alaska,” an article published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, and fought against indiscriminate killing of the state’s top predator.
After moving to Bainbridge, Burkholder was an outspoken opponent of overdevelopment on the Island. He became part of the Comprehensive Planning and Advisory Council and helped develop the Bainbridge Island Comprehensive Plan, which sought to limit extensive development to several key, high-density areas. The BICP eventually became the growth management model for other communities across the state. Burkholder argued for the removal of dams from the Snake River and served on the Bainbridge Island Land Trust board and the board of Kitsap Conservation Voters.
He was also very involved in Democratic Party activities. He was elected delegate to Democratic National conventions numerous times. In 2003, he won the Warren G. Magnuson Award given to the Washington State Democrat of the Year. He also served on the Executive Board of the 23rd District Democrats and was a member of the Kitsap County Democratic National Committee.
Throughout all his work, he made a lasting impression on the people who knew him. Colleen Byrum, a longtime friend of Bukholder who said, “Bob was my hero and adored friend,” spoke with reverence of the time Burkholder stopped by her home to show her and her then 5-year-old son a dead eagle found by an acquaintance. Byrum described the eagle as “a massive creature” that “filled the trunk of his car. Its talons were longer than my fingers, an intimidating predator even in death. It made a big impression on a little boy that day. Me, too.”
Burkholder, himself a skilled predator, did some of his best work when aiming, not a gun, but his sharpshooter eye on the issues he cared most about: the environment, democracy, and the end of war. He authored some fifty letters to the editor, including many to the Bainbridge Review. In 2008, when he was in his eighties, he published a 569-page memoir, Skirting the Edge, dedicated to his seven children, their mother, and his eight grandchildren. The memoir thrums with the anecdotes of his mischievous nature and risk-taking behavior, tempered by moments of self-reflection and a striving toward self-improvement. He wrote, “I finally evolved to where I can accept both my limitations and my strengths knowing the combination is who I am and not sweat the consequences—enjoying a sense of mission, compassion and love of my fellow beings—without a sense of failure.”
Throughout his life, Burkholder was often in the company of dogs. His last best friend, Betty, a Jack Russell terrier, was constantly at his side, including in the nave of the EHCC. Apparently, she shared some of Burkholder’s impishness as well as his company: During a recent choir practice, as the choir rehearsed “Great Gittin’ up Mornin’,” Betty began to howl along. Choir Director Carol Estes reportedly chided the choir, “Sopranos, you are off.”
When an advancing illness appeared to have gotten the best of him, Burkholder moved to Seattle to spend his remaining time at the home of his daughter. Eisenhauer was one of the last people to speak with him. She called him Thursday night, September 12, to see how he was doing. She said Burkholder’s voice was weak, but he was as lucid as ever. Eisenhauer said, “He knew he was going to die,” and he wanted to do it on his terms. “It’s the way he lived his life.”
Eisenhauer’s brief description of Burkholder says it best: “He was an open-hearted participant.” His memoir reverberates with his welcoming attitude toward life and its experiences, whether amusing, thrilling, or downright frightening: “I am not sure of my design but I do know I struggled to find it and being true to self was paramount. Despite the twists and turns, I arise from the murky waters to clear blue sky with unprecedented gratitude.”
Featured photo by James E. Macpherson.