LAWRENCE — Cancer has claimed the life of the Vietnam War veteran who was willing to sacrifice his own life savings to get medical treatment for his ailing dog.
But friends of Robert Burke say his legacy will live on. The love he showed for his yellow Labrador retriever Shadow touched the hearts of thousands of animal lovers throughout the Merrimack Valley while his noble cause created something to help future generations of pet owners.
“More than a hundred animals have already benefited from the Shadow Fund,” Massachusetts School of Law professor Diane Sullivan said of the special account she and others were inspired to establish in the spring of 2007 after reading a column about Burke’s predicament in The Eagle-Tribune.
“He really loved his dog and loved to know that he was helping others. The proudest thing in his life was the Shadow Fund that was established because of what he did,” she said.
Burke, 66, a long-time Lawrence resident, died Monday at the Coolidge House in Brookline where he had been under hospice care.
During a March 2007 interview with The Eagle-Tribune, Burke said he was going to quit his job as manager at Papa Gino’s in Methuen so he could raid his 401K retirement plan and pay the $3,800 it would cost for a veterinarian to repair the torn ligaments in Shadow’s left hind leg.
Burke’s story moved Sullivan, who is in charge of the animal law program at the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover. She vowed she wasn’t going to let that happen. Spurred by students in her class, the law school set up a special fund for Shadow.
The school also teamed up with Dr. Richard Lindsay, founder of Andover Animal Hospital, who offered to perform the surgery if the school could raise $1,000 – less than a third of the price that a New Hampshire animal hospital said it would charge Burke.
Response to the public campaign to help Burke was so overwhelming – it raised triple the money needed – Associate Dean Michael L. Coyne and Burke suggested a permanent fund be started to help people who cannot afford necessary medical treatment for their pets.
Burke’s determination to help his dog also inspired Sullivan to organize an essay-writing project at the school, which led to the publishing of a 2008 book titled “Please, Can We Keep the Donkey?” It became a major fundraiser that year for the Shadow Fund.
Dedicated to Burke and Shadow, the book includes a summary of their situation, as well as stories about animals rescued from shelters, from the street or by police.
Actress Betty White wrote the book’s foreword, which included a picture of the celebrity animal activist and her dog.
In an interview this week, Sullivan reflected on how Burke continued to be a hero to pet owners, even during his final days.
“There was a time back three or four years ago when I received a call from a young college girl who was in her last year of nursing school,” Sullivan recalled.
“Her dog was ill and she didn’t have the resources,” she said of the future nurse, one of dozens of pet owners who received financial assistance from the Shadow Fund. It turned out that she was the nurse was assigned to Robert at the hospice house,” Sullivan said.
The nurse learned about the fund from WBZ radio talk show host Dan Rea, an animal lover who has been an avid supporter of the fund.
In a 2007 interview, Burke called his dog Shadow “my only friend.”
“I gave up on humans quite a while ago. They have a tendency to hurt you and disappoint you. But dogs are always there. That’s why I’d do anything for Shadow,” he said.
Sullivan said she was saddened by the words she read of the Marine, who was ready to put his job on the line six years ago for the dog he loved.
“I hope we restored some of his faith in mankind,” she said.
Sullivan was the one Burke looked to last August when his health was failing to the point where he could no longer take care of Shadow. She made arrangements to have Shadow “stay temporarily” at her sister’s house until he was able to come home.
“I didn’t want Robert to give up hope,” Sullivan said.
“He really loved his dog. As long as he could see Shadow, he was happy in life,” she said.
George Bourque, a fellow veteran who befriended Burke, thinks he died peacefully and found comfort in knowing that his dog was being taken care and that many other pets were getting help from the Shadow Fund.
“From the time I spent with him in the Lawrence area and in the Coolidge house, he seemed to bring out the very best in people,” Bourque said.
Burke was born in Cambridge July 12, 1950. His father was in sales and the son of a Boston police officer. His mother was the daughter of a female concert pianist. They moved to California for a better life, according to Bourque.
At age 17, Burke joined the Marines and served from 1968 to 1972. He was a radio operator in Vietnam. When he returned home, he became an instructor at radio operators school in California.
Later, he worked at a Papa Ginos. His work eventually brought him to Methuen, where he was an assistant manager of Papa Ginos in Methuen. He lived in Lawrence for about 15 years.
It was Burke’s wish to be cremated, like the three German shepherds he owned over a period of three decades before Shadow became the new love of his life.
Bourque said Burke’s ashes will be buried at the veterans cemetery in Winchendon with a military funeral.