It became obvious at Fred B. Burke's funeral Friday night why he had been so successful at what he did, which was to put together the government programs that saved mass transit.

Everyone who counts was there: the key staff members from the key committees on Capitol Hill, some big wheels from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, close friends from the Urban Mass Transportation Administration and the American Public Transit Association, and representatives from big systems like New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority and Washington's Metro.

Even Walter Bierwagen, a gentle intellectual who rose from representing bus drivers in the old D.C. Transit System Inc. to become an international vice president in the Amalgamated Transit Union, showed up in a wheelchair while still recovering from a severe stroke.

The remarkable thing about Burke was that he understood all of those competing interests--authorizing committees and appropriating committees, labor and management, big city pols and their sometimes politically difficult transit authorities--and could talk to them all without losing the trust of any.

Burke invented legislative formulas that would work politically. Federal transit money over the years has been limited, with many cities competing for grants from the same pot. All of them were clients of Fred B. Burke Inc.

The transit community is no different from many other interests in Washington: its members share the love of federal money. They have conflicting goals, ranging from labor protections (which unions want and managements don't) to allocation formulas that favor little cities over big, or vice versa. Somebody has to bring it together, and that somebody isn't always officially in the government. Fred Burke was one of those somebodies, a former federal official turned consultant, but the ultimate civil servant.

The heart ailment that claimed Burke at 53 had been a major problem in recent months. When he should have been taking it easy, he worked furiously on Capitol Hill during last December's lame-duck session to protect transit interests in the legislation that increased the federal gasoline tax.

He helped write the deal that created, for the first time, a federal trust fund for transit programs similar to the one "the highway guys," as he called them, have had since 1956.

Then, when part of that deal began to come unglued after former transportation secretary Drew Lewis left town and the Office of Management and Budget began to rewrite history in the new Reagan budget, Burke went back to the Hill to sort it out.

He was at least moderately successful. A newcomer to transit matters at OMB was asked recently how the program was going and he replied, "Well, there's this Fred Burke problem." He meant that, from the OMB's point of view, it wasn't going very well at all.

As Friday evening wore on, as condolences were expressed to family members, as the mood lightened a bit, labor began to talk to management; appropriations had a few words with authorization, reporters trolled. Government works that way in Washington, and Fred Burke understood that better than anyone.