Former Madison County Coroner Dallas Burke, who served seven terms and was the first female coroner in Illinois, died Friday. She was 90.
Burke served as coroner from 1972 until 2000, when she chose not to seek re-election to an eighth term in office.
Burke became coroner under tragic circumstances. In 1972, her husband Thomas J. “Bud” Burke Jr., who owned Burke Funeral Home in Alton and was a deputy coroner, had won the Democratic nomination to run for county coroner. In May of that year, he was stricken and succumbed to a heart attack at age 52.
Dallas Burke, who was familiar with her husband’s work in the coroner’s office and was a registered nurse, took his spot on the ballot. She won the election and became the first woman in Madison County and the state of Illinois to hold the position of county coroner.
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Coroner Steve Nonn, who took office when Burke left, said Burke was at the forefront of modernizing death investigations.
Nonn said Burke in the early 1990s opened the first county-operated morgue and autopsy facility in downstate Illinois.
Burke moved the office from a volunteer-oriented operation to one that employed full-time death investigators.
“She strove to make it a professional office that did good, thorough investigations for the citizens of Madison County,” Nonn said. “It’s because of her our office has the respect of law enforcement and the courts.”
Burke herself was an in-the-field investigator.
“Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Dallas Burke could be seen on the job and she was seeing the worst of what mankind is capable of doing to another,” Nonn said. “There were adults. There were children. There were infants. Her cases ranged from the complex and complicated to the simple and routine, but each and every one was equally respected, and she spoke eloquently for every stilled voice that she represented.”
He added, “She did everything she could to unscramble the carnage and try to answer the myriad questions that followed. She knocked on many doors during those years and delivered news that no one wants to hear. She quietly endured the anger that comes with grief and offered solace to the bereaved.”
Nonn said Burke was a mentor to him.
“Since I have been coroner, I have had one single mantra that has carried me through difficult and hard decisions. It was WWDD — what would Dallas do,” Nonn said. “She was a grand lady.”
Visitation for Burke is scheduled for Monday at Gent Funeral Home in Alton. Funeral services are 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Alton. Interment will
follow at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Godfrey. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to St. Mary’s Catholic School or the Alton Symphony Orchestra.