by Doug Ireland
It really was about a girl named Sue. Susan, actually — known to family and friends forever as Susu.
Susu Williamson, part of a cornerstone family of Natchitoches, caught the eye and then quickly captured the heart of an out-of-place Ohioan.
Greg Burke met his destiny. He certainly didn’t realize it at the time, 37 years ago, but falling for that pretty little blonde girl with the antebellum accent moved the center of his universe about 1,500 miles south.
He was an intern in the Northwestern State athletic department, nearing the end of his nine-month appointment, when his boss, Tynes Hildebrand, and the president of the Demon Booster Club, Layne Miller, agreed that the three-person athletic administrative staff should add a full-time fundraiser.
Greg had little experience in that mode. But in his multi-faceted capacity at NSU, he had shown a cordial connectivity that belied his Yankee roots. Besides, his work ethic and efficiency was remarkable.
“The interest in staying here had grown immensely,” he said. So he applied for the new position, was an easy choice for Hildebrand, and not long afterward, he was proposing to Susu. In 1986, they tied the knot.
He spent five years, from 1986-91, as assistant athletic director and fundraiser for Northwestern. The Burkes moved back near his hometown of Alliance, Ohio, about an hour south of Cleveland, when he got hired at the University of Akron to raise money for the Zips’ athletic department.
The couple became parents Dec. 8, 1993, when Catherine Jean arrived. Life was good, even if Bill Belichick and a young assistant coach named Nick Saban couldn’t turn Burke’s beloved Cleveland Browns into winners.
Life got better in the summer of 1996, when new NSU president Dr. Randy Webb tapped Burke to replace Hildebrand as the Demons’ athletic director. The chance to bring his wife home, to a place he adored, and to raise their daughter there was too appealing to pass up.
Now, a quarter-century later, it’s Burke who is being replaced as AD. After months of discussions, first with his friend Dr. Chris Maggio and this fall with Maggio’s successor as NSU president, Marcus Jones, Burke and his bosses have found the perfect next step.
His talents are shifting to a much more finite role, as a fundraiser for the NSU Foundation, which supports the overall mission of the university.
In a few weeks, Burke will no longer sweat out a mind-boggling array of athletic issues, although he’s still going to avidly cheer on the Demons and Lady Demons. Instead, he will assist Jones, NSU Foundation director Drake Owens and the Foundation staff in a major capital campaign in 2022 and beyond.
“Even though I will be transitioning out of athletics, I loved this university then, 30-some odd years ago, as much as I do today, and will continue to do as I take on this new role,” said Burke.
What the future holds is outlined in Etch-A-Sketch. What he’s done is indelible in his photographic memory. Burke can recall sequences from NSU games in every sport dating back to before he met Susu.
The passion he has for Northwestern, built around athletics but broadened since, is astonishing. So as news spread just before Thanksgiving about his move across campus, he felt, purely, thankful.
“It’s been the opportunity of a lifetime. There’ve been a lot of great moments, and a lot of tough moments and stressful moments, but what I am taking with me are the treasured relationships with people on campus, in this community, around the state and around the nation,” he said.
“I appreciate everybody who’s been a part of the career I’ve had with NSU Athletics. Those people are still going to be a part of my life, a part of who I am. I encourage people, more than anything else, to support this university.
“Find a way to get behind these young people, these coaches. Maybe it’s giving $20 a month, or maybe it’s $2,000 a month, or anything in between. Come to ball games, like our posts on social media, encourage recruits to visit our campus, because when they do, they’ll love what they see and experience. They’re not coming just to score touchdowns or hit home runs, they’re coming to be students, and to become graduates of a great university that’s been producing successful alumni since 1884.”
Burke’s departure from athletics will leave a gaping hole that ought to be filled by several people. Since 2007, he’s been doing the work of two, at least. Budget concerns led Dr. Webb to not fill the vital slot of assistant AD for internal affairs that was vacated by the retiring, unsung hero Donnie Cox. Burke assumed all of those duties, and soldiered on.
Before, and after, he had offers elsewhere, at brand name programs and ambitious climbers, from friends who admired him and wanted him alongside them, but not because he applied any place. Each time, Burke weighed the added prestige and significant income jump, yet stayed put.
It was really all about a girl named Sue. And as time passed, a place he grew to love, NSU.