In Memoriam: James "Jim" Burke Jr.

    Date Posted: 
    Tuesday, December 1, 2020

    Professor Emeritus James (“Jim”) Joseph Burke, Jr. passed away on November 14, 2020.

    Before Dr. Burke’s time at the University of Arizona he served in the U.S. Air Force in Berlin during the Korean War. Dr. Burke trained at the Monterey Language Institute and used the skills he gained to listen in on and transcribe communications among Russian pilots flying over East Berlin. After his time serving the country, Dr. Burke received his master’s degree in physics from the University of Chicago, then his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona in 1972. Shortly after, he was hired as a staff scientist at the Optical Sciences Center (OSC) and promoted to full professor in 1982. Dr. Burke continued his research and taught graduate students until he retired in 1995 and was named Professor Emeritus of Optical Sciences.

    During his career, Dr. Burke authored the book Optical Waveguides with Narinder S. Kapany. The book was one of the first to describe waveguide phenomena in classical optical terms, rather than those of microwave theory and technique.

    Dr. Burke was married to his wife, Barbara, for 56 years until her passing in September 2019. He is survived by his children, grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews. At his request, there will be no formal services. Read his obituary.

    Please see below for a few thoughts and reflections from those who knew him well during his time at OSC.


    Jim Burke had a huge impact on my life. He hired me as a postdoc in March 1979 and welcomed Jane and I at TIA after our long journey from the UK, continuing to be enormously kind and generous as we settled in, finding us our apartment, and even loaning us his huge (to us) Buick station wagon to run errands. 

    We worked together on the image processing team for the Pioneer flyby of Saturn. The work required several all-nighters but proved very rewarding and immensely enjoyable. I learned a lot and Jim was ever encouraging and supportive, always with his pipe at the ready. Later we worked on a project developing image quality metrics funded by AFOSR.

    In 1981 I moved to the Electrical and Computer Engineering Dept. I spent 30 years teaching and doing research at the UA, and all because of the opportunity given me by my first boss and mentor Jim Burke. Those two years being a postdoc for Jim in OpSci were some of the happiest of my professional career. He was a lovely man, and I am blessed to have known him.

    Robin Strickland, Emeritus Professor of Optical Sciences and ECE 


    Jim Burke was a precious friend and colleague, who will be sorely missed. He was the director of our Optical Data Storage Center during the first seven years that I was on the faculty here, and I worked closely with him on various data-storage-related projects. We attended conferences together, went snorkeling in Maui, discussed science and politics and philosophy over numerous drinks and dinners, got to know each other’s family, and overall had a very enjoyable and productive personal as well as professional relationship.

    Jim was a kind man who cared deeply about people around him and did his best to create a friendly and positive atmosphere within the Optical Data Storage Center. He was gentle and wise, and I always looked up to him as a father figure and a role model. He once told me that, as a young man, he had seriously considered joining the ranks of the priesthood. Based on what I came to know about him over the years, Jim definitely had the personality and the aura of a man of God. I am deeply saddened to learn that he is no longer with us.

    Masud Mansuripur, Professor and Chair of Optical Data Storage at Wyant College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona


    Jim Burke was a thoughtful and broad ranging individual who carried out significant work in image processing and image reconstruction for several spacecraft imaging instruments. His broad interest and understanding of the field of optics enabled his unique ability to understand a variety of subjects. This contributed to his ability to engage in cooperative research projects with a large number of individuals. One of his major contributions to OSC was the initiation of the optical data storage cooperative in the 1990s. Jim’s congenial and engaging attitude is well remembered by those who worked with him.

    Bob Shannon, Professor Emeritus of Optical Sciences | Former Director of Optical Sciences Center, Wyant College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona


    During the late-1970s and the 1980s, Jim Burke was one of my colleagues at the old Jewish Temple annex at 6th and Campbell. I traveled to Phoenix with Jim a few times to conduct research with Litton Industries in fiber optics related to image intensifiers. Coherent fiber bundles were just becoming a reality, and Jim helped in their design. (In order to rectify the image, the coherent bundle needed to be rotated 180 degrees without losing image quality, serving to make the image upright rather than inverted, due to optical design).

    During these trips to Phoenix, Jim spoke of his time in the military during the Korean War where he served as a Russian interpreter. He related to me how he would talk with the Russian pilots flying the MiG aircraft alongside US fighter planes. He was a very interesting and brilliant man and will certainly be missed by those who knew him.

    Eustace Dereniak, Professor Emeritus of Optical Sciences | OSC Alumni, Ph.D. 1976


    During the first few years of my career at OSC, I had the good fortune to work with Jim Burke on several government projects. The most memorable was with the CIA in the mid-1970s. Jim and I had made plans to meet in Washington, D.C. for a meeting with our CIA program manager, John. (Incidentally, this meeting was to take place in the nursing home where John was a resident.) True to form, I neglected to make a hotel reservation for me in advance—hoping to negotiate a lower room price once in town. But after going from one full hotel to another for what seemed like hours, I finally decided to try the hotel where I knew Jim had a reservation.

    Still no luck, and Jim was not scheduled to arrive until later. Somehow, I convinced the hotel manager that Jim would not mind sharing his double room with me and, again true to form, I went upstairs to take a nap while waiting on Jim to arrive. A couple of hours later, I was awoken by a startled Jim entering “his” room. After a little explaining and a few laughs, Jim good-naturedly let me stay, and our meeting the next day was a huge success. To this day, I still think of Jim as one of the kindest gentlemen I have ever known.

    Jim Wyant, Professor Emeritus and Founding Dean, Wyant College of Optical Sciences


    I eternally cherish Jim’s role as a brilliant scientist, an influential academic advisor, a generous and friendly mentor, and above all as a decent humble human being. Not to forget the pleasant scent of tobacco he continually charred in his pipe! A notable gratitude and attribution to Jim, who set me on my career path in the MedTech arena. While the OpSci funding was short towards the end of my graduate work, he declined a consulting assignment with a startup medical device company in Laser Angioplasty and offered it to me with high confidence that I can manage it. That lead me to a leadership role with the company and the rest is history! 

    He was a great communicator and had an avid familiarity in diverse subjects despite his soft-spoken demeanor. Over the years, I stayed in touch (every birthday and Christmas) with Jim and Barbara. His love for his family was very admirable and personally was honored to have him and Barbara attend my wedding. I will always remember him and Barbara fondly.

    Nadhir Kosa, OSC Alumni, Ph.D. 1987


    When I came to Optical Sciences, I really wanted to work with Jim Burke! I made a xerox copy of the classic Kapany & Burke when I was employed at ITT in fiber optics. I hunted Jim down in the first week. I studied with him from 1979-80 for master's-level work in integrated optics. But alas, I was not a theoretician. Forty years later, and I'm still an experimentalist. I remember Jim as a very kind person, who was generous with his time. I could talk with him about anything, and he listened with concern and caring. Some years later, he wrote me a very nice reference letter when I applied for an assistant professor position at Central Florida. He was a great fellow, and I will surely miss him.

    Glenn D. Boreman, OSC Alumni, Ph.D. 1984 | Professor and Chair, Dept. of Physics and Optical Science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte


    I met Jim in the early 1970s when I was a graduate student at Optical Sciences working with Professor Phil Slater on the first Landsat digital images. We needed a way to visualize the large images and Jim had a device known as the POD (Pictorial Output Device), a re-purposed facsimile machine that could "write" an image line-by-line on photographic film wrapped around a spinning drum. It had been developed as part of the NASA Pioneer 10 image processing project at the UA. Jim was most gracious to allow the POD to be used for other projects (as long as they did not interfere with Pioneer priorities). After those first interactions, we maintained a friendship for years. With his thoughtful, easy going manner, he was to me the quintessential scientist/engineer.

    Bob Schowengerdt, Emeritus Professor of Optical Sciences, ECE, and Agriculture


    I have a lot of fond memories of Jim but there is one that I will never forget. It happened the night before my Ph.D. dissertation defense. I was working in Baltimore at the time and flew to Tucson the night before my big day. Jim invited me to spend the night at his house. He picked me up at the airport and took me to dinner on the way to his house. We had a couple of drinks at dinner then proceeded to his house and had a few more scotches. I told Jim that I better stop drinking as I've got a big day tomorrow. Jim said, "Lynn, anyone can pass a dissertation defense sober."

    Lynn Hutcheson, OSC Alumni, Ph.D. 1980


    In 1974, in the middle of writing up the theory part of my dissertation, I was struggling to understand the role of partial coherence in white-light quasi-monochromatic image formation as it applied to rotational shear interferometer that I had built. I made several visits to Jim Burke's office and we developed a method we called the quasi-monoplanatic approximation. Suddenly, my problems were solved. My data fit theory and I was done! Jim was always helpful and had time for me and was really interested in my project. A very memorable few months that I still carry with me today. 

    Jim Burke was one of the founding faculty at Opt Sci. One of Aden Meinel’s truly inspirational hires.

    Jim Breckinridge, OSC Alumni, Ph.D. 1976