He was the nation's most famous modern admiral. She was his muse, an impish 95-pound wonder who through generosity and wit became equally admired among the steely sorority of Navy wives.
Yesterday, Roberta and Arleigh Burke, who for almost three-quarters of a century lived the Navy's most enduring love story, were reunited under a grassy plot at the Naval Academy, a half-mile from where they married on a rainy June day in 1923.
Roberta "Bobbie" Burke died July 4 at her Fairfax, Va., home of a heart attack. She was 98. Four years ago, she suffered three heart attacks, but after a week became bored and headed home from a hospital nobody thought she would leave.
Yesterday, in a pink dress, silver horn-rim glasses and a strand of pearls, her body rested in an oak coffin on the Naval Academy Chapel altar where she wed then-Ensign Burke 74 years ago and started a life that took her through shabby apartments to the august Admiral's House at the Naval Observatory in Washington.
A teddy bear lay by her side. And in her hands was a picture of her husband and a clutch of pink roses.
"Her love affair with the Navy never ended," said Margaret Dalton, wife of Navy Secretary John H. Dalton.
The relationship required ceaseless sacrifice and unquestioning devotion, traits Bobbie Burke taught generations of Navy wives.
"Our lives are defined by separation, by war, by tours at sea, by duty days," said Mary Rushton, whose husband was an aide to the admiral. "The Burkes are testament to the fact that love can overcome all of that."
An aspiring poet from Lawrence, Kan., Bobbie Burke turned her creativity to other ends, transforming cheap apartments with a view of her husband's ship into home. As his horizons broadened, her own became more circumscribed by the duties of itinerant spouse and high-profile hostess. They had no children.
Navy women didn't go to sea until 17 years after Burke retired; now one of eight sailors is female. For Bobbie Burke and other Navy wives, being in the Navy meant being at home.
In a poem called "A Navy Wife Remembers," she wrote:
"The gravy was thin on a fresh Ensign's pay, but 'good things are free,' as the song used to say. And ideas flowed free with experienced wives, from how to wash socks, to the merit of chives."
Yesterday's service started with a touch inspired by her trademark wit. The academy organist strolled down the aisle playing the accordion she bought in a New York City pawn shop 65 years ago. The song was "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
Two hours later, she was buried on a sun-splotched bluff overlooking the Severn River, proving again that the Burkes' friends were right when they said: "Where there is A, there is B."
Where there is Arleigh, there is Bobbie.
Her husband died 18 months ago, and was buried beneath a polished black-marble tombstone etched with an admiral's four stars in the academy cemetery. "I had a job I liked and a woman I loved," he once said. "Couldn't ask for more than that."
On the cold January day of his funeral, Bobbie Burke watched from the chapel's front row. President Clinton gave the eulogy. A month later, she arranged for her own burial beneath the stone that read: "Arleigh A. Burke, sailor. Roberta G. Burke, sailor's wife."
Arleigh Burke made his name in the Pacific during World War II, and several members of "Little Beavers Destroyer Squadron 23" attended yesterday's service. So did 80 sailors from the USS Arleigh Burke, a guided-missile destroyer. He became the Navy's top admiral in 1955, holding the job for an unmatched three terms. He refused a fourth in 1961.
Bobbie Gorsuch Burke also became Navy legend.
She lived mostly alone early in their marriage, working at the Red Cross during World War II, while he sailed the Pacific. She was not alone. She kept Great Danes as company throughout her life.
When he became chief of naval operations, she became known as one of the most stylish hostesses in Washington, throwing huge parties and intimate dinners in the Victorian Admiral's House. She called Grace Kelly, Lady Edwina Mountbatten, and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek her friends.
A Christian Scientist, she told Admiral Burke it was all right if the Navy came first in his life because her faith was first in hers. She devoured poetry, treasuring Robert Louis Stevenson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and wrote her own.
"The lessons keep mounting," Bobbie wrote in one of her poems. "But mainly, let's say 'When crying seems likely, just laugh it away.' "
Pub Date: 7/11/97