Roberta Gorsuch Burke, 98, a self-effacing woman whose quiet selflessness and lifetime of service brought her the unsought title of "first lady of the United States Navy," died of cardiac arrest July 4 at her home in Fairfax.
She was the widow of Adm. Arleigh "31-Knot" Burke, a celebrated World War II hero who, as three-term chief of naval operations from 1955 to 1961, led the Navy into the nuclear age and became arguably the most commanding figure in its history.
But as President Clinton noted in his eulogy at the admiral's funeral last year, a large part of Arleigh Burke's success was built on the unique partnership he shared with his wife of 72 years.
"You have blessed America with your service and set an example for not only Navy wives today and to come, but for all Americans," the president said.
"Bobbie" Burke was as slender, shy and soft-spoken as her husband was bear-shaped, gregarious and full speed in command. But from the moment they met on a blind date in Annapolis, she, like him, was married to the Navy.
She was a native of Lawrence, Kan., and moved with her family to Westminster, Md., during World War I. Soon she began working for the Treasury Department in Washington. When her older sister was invited on a blind date with a midshipman and backed out, Mrs. Burke went instead and was introduced to her future husband. They were married June 7, 1923, the day he graduated from the Naval Academy.
After 32 years of trailing her husband from ocean to ocean (she once wrote: "One summer lesson was never forgot, when packing time comes, a husband is not"), she found herself mistress of Admiral's House, the Victorian mansion on Observatory Circle, which was then the naval operations chief's quarters and a major focal point of Washington's social and political life.
So humbly had the Burkes always lived that some of the Navy's self-appointed grand dames wondered aloud if Mrs. Burke would measure up to her husband's high-profile assignment. But Bobbie Burke proved almost as revolutionary as her husband, throwing open Admiral's House to visitors, staging seated dinners for dozens and receptions for hundreds and, at her husband's side, traveling more miles around the world on diplomatic missions than any woman since Eleanor Roosevelt.
Her quiet strength, serenity and mischievous wit won her so many friends that at her death she was still receiving hundreds of letters a year from Navy spouses and foreign diplomats grateful for her example. Japanese diplomats sought her out annually until her final days. Queen Frederika of Greece used to end state visits to the United States by flying off formally from Andrews Air Force Base, only to land again unobtrusively in order to spend a week or more with the Burkes. Thirty years ago, at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, Mrs. Burke was mistaken for actress Helen Hayes. At the Reagan White House one evening, Hayes reported being mistaken for Bobbie Burke.
Mrs. Burke always played down her achievements as the routine contributions of "a sailor's wife," the epitaph she chose for herself on the tombstone adjoining her husband's in the Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis.
Even at the podium before 10,000 people in Bath, Maine, eight years ago, she sought to deflect public attention from herself as sponsor at the launching of the USS Arleigh Burke. She ended her short speech with a Biblical quotation from I Chronicles 29: "Thine O Lord is the greatness and the . . . glory . . . for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine."
Mrs. Burke was honored with a "Salute to a Sailor's Wife" dinner last fall at the Navy Memorial. There, Margaret Dalton, wife of Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, declared her still "first lady of the Navy," despite the passage of 35 years since her days in Admiral's House, now the official residence of the vice president. The Daltons are flying back from Europe for Mrs. Burke's funeral at 11 a.m. Thursday in the Naval Academy Chapel, where she was married. A Navy spokesman said it will be "a large funeral with everything short of military honors."
The Burkes had no children. "The Navy was their family," the spokesman said. "And the Navy will be there." CAPTION: ROBERTA GORSUCH BURKE