Nearly 300 empty blue folding chairs were arranged in rows across the basketball court in the St. Albans School for Boys’ gymnasium one evening last week, and around 6 o’clock people started filling them. Soon space became tight, and the next six dozen people found overflow seating in the bleachers. Another 25 or so lined up against the back wall.
David Baad, wearing a dark suit and light blue tie, found the podium but knew he couldn’t succinctly describe his friend. Who could?
He was born Kenneth Burkhead but was known by virtually everyone as Buddy or Coach or Commander. He coached around Washington without pay or much attention for a half-century, including the past 40 years on a volunteer basis at St. Albans. When anyone tries to do the math and calculate how many boys learned sports from the colorful coach, they leap immediately to “thousands.” Some pause and add, “probably more.”
Baad, the school’s longtime baseball coach and athletic director and current assistant headmaster, looked across the gym.
“If you got the right eight people in the room, you just might be able to piece together the full story of Buddy’s life,” he said. “That’s because all of us really know about 12 percent of it, each of us a different and distinct portion.”
There in the front row was Burkhead’s family: a younger brother and older sister, a nephew, niece and a couple of others. The last two seats in the row were empty.
Burkhead, a retired officer with Capitol Hill police, was 79 years old when he died April 13. Until dementia became too severe these past couple of years, he was always around sports teams. Baseball, basketball and football. Washington Metropolitan Police Boys Club, Rockville Boys Baseball Association. And, of course, St. Albans, the boys-only prep school whose alumni includes everyone from Al Gore to Gore Vidal. Burkhead’s players went on to become lawyers, doctors and many coaches themselves.
“He was one of those wonderful throwback coaches that doesn’t seem to exist anymore,” said Luke Russert, 28, the NBC News reporter who played at St. Albans.
“Generations of families played for this guy,” said John Guinan, 32, now a baseball coach himself. “It was almost a rite of passage for families: ‘You’re gonna play for Buddy.’ ”
At the memorial service, the stories started flowing, each bigger than the last. How much pride Burkhead had in “flashing tin” whenever a situation called for his police badge. How he’d once been ejected from a game after arguing with an umpire during the pregame home plate conference. How a foul ball became lodged in a backstop a few years back, and Burkhead, a spry 66 years old at the time, scaled 20 feet of fence, popped the ball loose and scampered back to earth in a flash.
Reserved and unassuming away from the field, Burkhead was fiery and unmistakable on it, his voice recognizable from a block away. He would dismiss a kid from the team if a mother didn’t want him sliding head-first or if a family vacation was poorly-timed. At practices especially, there was no room for entitlement and no time for slacking. He’d bark out: “At the game tomorrow, your mother and father will not be umpiring!” or “Every day is not your birthday!”
But he was also the first to offer up cleats, a glove or other equipment to a young player in need. He remembered his players for years and called every mother or wife by the nickname, “Miss America.”
“It was Buddy’s way of reminding me and others how lucky we were to have our mothers, wives and daughters in our lives,” Baad said.
Baad was 14 years old when he met Burkhead. He became head baseball coach at St. Albans in 1991, and for more than two decades saw Burkhead most every single day. He’d never met a family member until last week. As Baad says, “Buddy was wired to talk about others and not himself.”
At last week’s memorial service, everyone compared notes, trying to piece together Burkhead’s full story. They’d quickly learn that volunteering the bulk of life to coaching other people’s children was about the easiest thing to digest. The contradictions and mysteries drew a chuckle. Burkhead was, after all, a man who eagerly coached the House Democrats in the annual Congressional baseball game — despite his own political leanings.
“Buddy enjoyed not only working with them but joking with them and trying to bring them down a peg or two,” said Charles Johnson, the former House parliamentarian.
And Burkhead could just as easily mingle with Washingtonians most in need as he could with the city’s elite. Mike Hupp, a retired inspector with Capitol Hill police, remembers working a State of the Union address with Burkhead about 25 years ago. President George H.W. Bush was preparing to depart the Capitol and officers were on high-alert as lights and sirens came to life. The motorcade began to pull away but first turned in front of the officers and came to a complete stop.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’ve never seen this before,’” Hupp recalled. The back window of the black limousine rolled down and Bush poked his head out, calling for Burkhead. “Hey Buddy, you think you could find time to work me in for some batting practice at St. Albans?” Hupp remembers the president saying.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “The only thing that could stop a presidential motorcade was Buddy Burkhead.”
Born in the District, Burkhead grew up wearing out a borrowed glove on the fields around the Trinidad neighborhood in Northwest Washington. “Just constantly playing,” said his sister, Barbara Broderick, 81.
He was a Washington Post All-Met pitcher for Northeast High in 1953 and played a season of minor league ball in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization before joining the Army reserves. He returned to the area and eventually joined the Capitol police in 1968, rising to sergeant and eventually serving in the dignitary protection unit where he was assigned to guard high-level politicians, such as Tip O’Neill, Bob Dole and others.
Upon Burkhead’s retirement from the force in 1992, former Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), who served 28 years in Congress, spoke on the House floor, thanking the police sergeant “for his invaluable assistance to the members over the years as a coach and personal confidant.”
Baseball was his passion, and despite the lousy pay — $0 annually — Burkhead devoted his golden years entirely to coaching. “He literally gave every waking moment of his non-professional life to helping young people,” said Brendan Sullivan, 39, one of his many former players. “It’s staggering the number of hours. You could go to the park at 6 p.m. on a Sunday, and he’d be there raking the field or maybe hitting fungos.”
Johnson, the former House parliamentarian, coached under Burkhead a few times, including one basketball team that went undefeated. “I was the assistant. My job was to explain him to the parents,” he joked. “It was a full-time job.”
Burkhead’s demanding style and gruff demeanor might have initially rubbed some parents the wrong way, but most usually came around.
“We all knew he had a good heart. You could just see the effort and time he spent with them,” said Mary Ann Miller, one of the Miss Americas whose son, Jon, later walked on the Princeton team and today works in the New York Mets’ front office. “Buddy instilled in him that you must persevere, you can’t give up. It was Buddy who gave him that strength.”
Sitting in the first row, with those two empty seats on the end, Burkhead’s family soaked it all in. The old coach had kept hidden from them, too, certain parts of his life, and they hung on every word of every story. “This is all so great,” his brother, Thomas, 73, said later.
John McCarthy, the longtime D.C. coach, took the stage carrying a red baseball bat. He asked people to stand if they’d ever played for Burkhead. A couple hundred men of all ages and races rose to their feet, their uniforms long ago traded in for blazers. McCarthy noted that Burkhead coached in all eight District wards. “There are many, many, many ballplayers born on the margins of Washington society who Buddy befriended, got to know, encouraged,” McCarthy said.
He acknowledged the holes in the coach’s biography, saying. “I don’t even know Kenny Burkhead. I know Coach Burkhead. I wish I knew Kenny Burkhead.”
McCarthy had known Coach Burkhead since he was 14 years old. He had the room doubled over, telling old stories, pantomiming swings, giving third-base coaching signs. Like the others, he acknowledged Burkhead’s rough edges but shared many of the same adjectives: dedicated, selfless, loyal, reliable, generous, humble. “He turned teenage boys into alpha males who were kind, courteous, reliable, mentally and physically tough, leaders,” he said.
Burkhead kept at it for years and years. There was a story in The Washington Post, published in 1999, in which Burkhead mentioned a retirement home waiting in Florida, already fully paid. He was looking forward to moving closer to his daughter, he said. But he never did.
“I always knew better,” Baad said. “I could never imagine Buddy leaving Washington. He loved to coach too much.”
According to Bill Broderick, Burkhead’s nephew, the old coach was briefly married in the early 1960s and had two children. He hadn’t seen the daughter in many years, though, and might have never even met his son.
“When it came to fatherhood, he had no example, nothing to work with,” Broderick said. “His father passed in 1976, and he couldn’t go to the morgue to ID him because just hadn’t seen him in so long.
“So he never knew what to do. He didn’t know how to do it. He sort of overcompensated and gave all he could to everybody else.”
His daughter learned of Burkhead’s death and showed up at a burial service last week. She didn’t attend the memorial service, and those blue folding chairs at the end of the family row remained empty.
“One of the reasons that all of this has been as emotional as it has for me and others,” said Sullivan, one of his former pupils, “he’s someone who was such an incredible part of so many families, and we didn’t really know his. We didn’t know all the pieces to his life.”
At the memorial service, when McCarthy had finished speaking, Mark Wilkerson, a teacher at St. Albans, came up and asked everyone to rise to their feet. Together they sang the national anthem, which Burkhead — Buddy, Coach, Commander — had heard so many times before so many first pitches and always loved. When it was finished, Wilkerson leaned into the microphone and said, “Let’s play two.”