Recorded on July 12, 2013. Length: 30 Minutes.
Chuck Burke has lived in Northbrook since the early 1960s and was heavily involved in sports in the area. Chuck talked about growing up in the area and competing in Northbrook as a speed skater. Chuck and his wife were involved in the formation of the Northbrook Skating Club and skating at the Ed Rudolph Velodrome. Northbrook has a rich history of Olympic speed skaters that Chuck reflects on. Chuck also discusses what it was like living in unincorporated Northbrook West. Chuck ends the interview by telling listerers what to do if they want to also get involved in speed skating.
JH: Today is Friday, July 12th. Good afternoon and welcome to Northbrook Voices, an oral history project sponsored by the Northbrook Historical Society and the Northbrook Public Library. My name is Judy Hughes and I’m pleased to welcome Chuck Burke who’s lived in Northbrook since 1962, although his first introduction to Northbrook came a decade earlier. Chuck why don’t you tell us what brought you to Northbrook?
CB: Well, I’m must say my wife, actually my girlfriend then, my future wife was a National North American State Champion speed skater who had just retired to go into nurses training. I had just come back out of two years in the Army, and the Olympic Games in Oslo in 1952. The club that I skated for in Chicago the CYO, the Catholic Youth Organization, had just disbanded and a couple of the clubs in Chicago were recruiting me, but I talked to my friend Joni Munson which had been working with this brand new club that just started in Northbrook. She said they were looking for a coach and she asked if I would like to come and talk to the people. So I did and I found a group of very dedicated, wonderful people. They were just starting the club, so I decided it would really be fun to come in and compete, because I still wanted to compete in skating and bicycle racing. I came and started with Northbrook, my wife and I. We coached, most of them were young kids. We had one boy that was like, 15, 16, he was our first star, Dave Zimmerman. Then we had a girl that was about 12, Bonnie Dietrich, they were our first two heroes of the club. We worked with them, the first rink that we skated at when I came out here in ’53 probably, was near the historical society, and it went north to Shermer, in took in part of the outfield of the ball field. We skated there maybe one or two years, then they opened the rink at the tower, the Tower Rink which was huge. We were able to set up a 400 meter track and we had the 1955 local Olympic Trials here. Then after a few years they put Cherry underpass through and chopped a part of it off, then they put the Village Hall up and cut more off. Then they put the library up and cut more off. By that time the Velodrome had started and we skated at the infield of the Velodrome, which was just beautiful because when the Velodrome they sort of lined the bottom of the infield with clay so it would retain water. It pumped the water right out of the river, so by fall we’d have water there and as soon as it froze we’d have skating. The ice was there early and it was always good ice, it was well maintained by the Park District. We skated there which was just fantastic. There was trees around the track, and on a beautiful night it had music. We trained there and skaters came from all the different clubs, from all over. Evanston, Glen Ellyn, Park Ridge, we all practiced there, it was really a great time.
JH: How big was the club?
CB: The club was very big. These kids then, at that time that was in the era where computers were not a thing, and television wasn’t really that big, so the kids hung out at the local skating rink, not only here but in every community. They were there from Friday night until Sunday evening, and skated, they played Crack the Whip and I’ve got it. They just were enjoying skating.
JH: Winter seemed colder then.
CB: They did, they did. That was another thing, with the skating rink like I said, they had the clay bottom, well in the spring it didn’t thaw- drain for the soccer playing and so forth, so they put drain tiles in and drained it all out. It made it a bit more difficult to make ice, plus the winters weren’t what they should be. It was start of the heating system. Then eventually they built the indoor rink, and that started to change the whole complexion of skating, where they would have to have five or six people out there around the clock making ice in the outdoor rink, they’d have ice for a few days and it all melted after, they’d have to start all over again. Where if they the built the rink and they could run the Zamboni around with one guy, then have ice in five minutes. To us, skating outdoors was a special thing. Very few people- We have people in the Olympic Team who have never skated outside, it’s hard to believe, but that’s what they do. Anyway, we survived. Through the years we’ve had 20 Olympians, two more possibly this year in Sochi (Russia) in February. We have one on the short track team, last Olympics in Calgary. Not Calgary, Vancouver. They both medaled, one on short track, the girl, Lana Gehring, the boy was Brian Hansen. Hansen skates long track, Gehring skates short track, but they both were developed right here in Northbrook.
JH: Northbrook has a real history with Olympic medalists, don’t they?
CB: They really do. Like I say, we have 20 skaters and we have about six or eight skaters who have medaled, some of them multi-medals.
JH: This is today or is this over the span of the whole … ?
CB: No. This is back in the early ’60s and ’70s.
CB: In the meantime, I made the next Olympic team in ’56, representing Northbrook, and the United States of course. Meanwhile while I was gone, my wife took over, filled in with the coaching with a lot of help from other people. Then I came back and I bike raced for another year and skated for another year, by this time I was married. One of the amusing stories that I usually tell is that I credited Northbrook Skating Club for my marriage, because we were having a meeting one time with the skating club, we were divvying up the money for the expenses to go to the national championships, and this was when we weren’t married yet, so they had to have a room for my girlfriend and a room for me. During the meeting a guy got up in the back, one of the parents and said, “Why don’t you two guys get married and we only have to pay for one room?” That night going back, we stopped for something to eat, and I had been thinking about it a while anyway, but anyway I thought it was as good a time as any, I proposed and all because of the Northbrook Skating Club. Before we were married, I would come from work out here and Donna would get on a train and come out and one of the parents would be there at the station with a sandwich or something, and we coached until about 9:00 at night. Then on the way home we’d stop to have something to eat and socialize. Then I’d have to take her all the way back into the Loop, into Chicago. She was at Wesley Memorial Hospital in nurses training. Then go home and do it all over again the next day, but we loved it, we loved it. We got very close to the kids. Some of them we still socialize with as adults. They have kids and some of them even have grandkids. It was a nice thing. Speed skating is like that, it’s a sport, we don’t get the notoriety that hockey and figure skating gets, so it’s very difficult for us to recruit. In fact, now we’re trying to regroup. But with hockey, and speed skating is the least expensive of the three sports. We’re trying to build it back up again, this is 2013. Through the years we’ve developed these kids and not only the kids that were champions, we developed kids that just enjoyed skating, for whatever reason, we had a lot of kids. It’s like every sport now, it’s very specialized. We had a lot of fun back then, it was great. After I got back from the Olympic Games in ’56, I competed one more year in cycling and skating, but we were married by then. We had kids and responsibilities. My kids needed some attention, so I dropped out and went into freelance private lessons, type of thing. That was a lot better because I could do my own hours and so forth, so I had a lot more freedom and I also had kids from other clubs and so forth. We did that for quite a while. We’re still in skating, my wife is National Finnish (Finish??) Judge, and I still coach at the club. I usually just handle the little kids now because, as I said, head coach do the heavy work because then I don’t have to get involved with a lot stuff that I don’t want to get involved with anymore. It’s just been part of our life, and we both enjoy it. We still take in all the Championships and so forth. We’re looking forward to Russia. We’re not going, but we’re looking forward to how our kids are going to do over there this year. I also had a nephew that was on the ’72 Olympic Team. One of my daughters speed skated, some of my grandkids skated. Going way, way back, my dad was speed skater, that’s how we all got involved with it.
JH: Did your dad go to the Olympics as well?
CB: No, my dad, this was during the Depression and they were lucky they could- He told me this story where three or four guys would get together and they’d buy a pair of skates, and they would all switch off using them. He skated in the Playground Meets in the Chicago area. He played football in high school, he broke his ankle and he never went back to it. I have a brother and a sister that were in the Ice Follies. When they started skating he got back into it. He was an official and coach, and so forth for many years. I also bike raced for 10 years. I never got a chance to ride the track here (at the Velodrome) because I retired before it started.
JH: There’s cross training isn’t there between ice skating?
CB: Yes, very much so. In fact, when my wife and I were competing, a large percentage of the skaters would take up bike riding for training with the competitors, and they’d find out, “Well, hey, you know, I can beat this guy and he’s racing.” Yeah, there was a lot, the two sports are very compatible, but now, like I said, things are so specialized. This nephew I was talking about who was on a national speed skating team as junior, and he was also on the junior cycling team, and each of the sports said, “You’ve got to give up the other one or we won’t have anything to do with you.” He was only 14 years old, I said, “That’s crazy.” It’s a fun part of your life. Some of the kids that I coached, well they’re not kids anymore, so the people that I coached years back, they said, “Man that was the most fun I’ve ever had. I’m glad I got into it. It kept me out of trouble. It was just fun.” The trips up to St. Paul for the Winter Carnival where the nationals were, stayed in hotels, the train ride, all these things, for a young kid, it was maybe not so exciting now, but it was back then.
JH: Are there any of the people that you’ve coached that our listeners might know?
CB: That I coached?
JH: Uh huh.
CB: Well, I coached the Park Ridge Club and Nancy Swider-Peltz, who was on five Olympic teams, and her daughter was on two Olympic teams now. The daughter and one of her sons are going to be trying for the next team. Eddie Rudolph Jr., in fact, big Ed Rudolph, Ed Rudolph Sr., had two boys Gordy and Eddie. Gordy was big at both, but Gordy was the better cyclist, he was on the Pan American team that went to Brazil and did well. Eddie was a better skater, he was on three Olympic teams. Just tragically he died in an auto accident a couple of years ago. Anne Henning, but they sort of came after I left the club, but we did coach them in their early years.
Like I say, I left the club in ’60 after Eddie and Beverly Burr made the ’60 Olympic team. Then I moved on, and like I say, we moved out, so that’s so much for the history. I could go into for hours of course, some of the fun we’ve had. It was skating outside, we’d be out there, the skating meets on weekends lasted like five hours. Donna and I would be out there coaching for the whole five hours, but it was fun. It’s fun and the kids now, nobody wants to get cold anymore, and they all skate indoors. They skate up at the Pettit Center. It’s like a palace, in our wildest dreams, we never thought we’d see something like that. We’re developing a small group in Illinois. On a bigger basis, Illinois has at least one Olympian on every Winter Olympic Games since 1924. Illinois has always been, Chicago in particular, has always been the hotbed of speed skating, although people won’t realized that, because Norwegian immigrants settled around Humboldt Park and brought the sport with them. When I was skating with the Catholic Youth Organization, we had all size and shapes and religions. It was just a great time, but you could do it for the limited amount of money you had, now everything’s so expensive to get into sports.
JH: Northbrook has had an Olympic speed skater in most of the … since the ’50s, is that correct?
CB: We’ve had- Yeah Northbrook Skating Club, representative every Olympics since ’52 except 22, we had Shani Davis who was our top skater in the world right now in the 1,000 meter. He trained with us off and on, he belonged to the Evanston Club, but all the kids are like, the sport is so small it’s like one big traveling community now. It’s fun.
JH: Kids come from all over to train here at the Northbrook Club?
CB: Yes, we’re trying to get more Northbrook participants. In fact, we’re starting now for next year, starting the recruiting thing, but like I say, it’s hard to fight hockey and figure skating because they get so much publicity and we don’t, unless it’s a scandal and then we get some, some unwanted publicity, but no publicity.
JH: If someone as interested what would they have to do?
CB: We’re online, look us up, the Northbrook Speed Skating Club. You’ll find all the information on who to get in contact with, and how to sign up. It’s a more relaxed sports than hockey and not quite as intense as figure skating. It’s good cross training for other sports. We have the one junior, he’s not skating with our club but he’s an accomplished hockey player. He’ll probably, hopefully, he’ll be on the next Olympic team, he does both, he’s still playing hockey and speed skating, so I think he’ll probably give up hockey now since he’s an Olympic candidate. The kids can do both, and it’s a great sport. It’s a different attitude, the different clubs are more friendly with one another. Playing hockey or team sports you may not even know the people you’re playing against. Here the kids train together, they sit before the races, they’re buddy-buddy, after the races it’s every man for himself after the races are back. They stay at each others house, kids from out of town from Champagne is a big skating … Bonnie Blair skated, not with us, but with our group, I had kids that skated, competed with her, so that’s great. Then like my wife when she won in North American Championships, she beat the Canadian girl who had never been beaten before, and later on the girl named one of her daughters after Donna, so things like that, it’s pretty neat. Then in ’62 we moved out to Northbrook West which was a little island out just east of Mission Hills and we’re unincorporated. Whatever had to been done we did ourselves, we had a lot of tradesmen. We put up street signs, we cleared empty lots, we built garages, we built additions. We all had young kids, so we really couldn’t go out much because the kids needed naps and so forth. It was a very tight community is what I’m trying to say. The kids grew up, they couldn’t really do much until they got drivers licenses and things. The kids who grew up to be very tight, they’re still on the computer, “I grew up in Northbrook West.” Some of the kids bought their folk’s houses and still live there raising another generation. There’s lots to be said about a community when the kids want to stay. Our four girls went to Glenbrook North. Our daughter, Dawn was big in gymnastics, she got 5th in the state championships, and she won the club championships in gymnastics. It was just a great community. We lived out there until last year, which was 2012, and we moved to Covenant Village, which is really nice, no more cleaning gutters, mowing the lawn. My wife doesn’t have to cook, and we’re really loving it. We thought it was a good move at a good time.
JH: Can you- I want to go back to skating for just a minute, you mentioned Ed Rudolph Sr., could you tell us a little bit about him?
CB: Yes, Ed. When we first moved out, like I said, there was probably a group of about 10 families that were the founding body of the club. Ed was the spark plug of the club, especially with his association with the Park District and everything. The first president was Thurlington Kinney, he had three kids that skated. He skated there, but his two kids were really good athletes, they were fun to be with.
JH: Right and Ed was responsible in some ways for the Velodrome?
CB: Yes, yes. He being in the landscaping business, he used a lot of his own equipment and everything to do it. They used the dugout from the swimming pool to build part of the bike track. Yeah, he was the spark plug of the club for quite a while. Yeah, it was good times. We enjoyed, like I said, we’re still friends with some of the people that skated. In fact, one of our skaters who skated, Dick Baldwin, he skated as a kid. Then he was very good in baseball, in fact, he was with one of the big league teams, then he moved down to the Virgin Islands, he came back and he got back into skating, and he’s skating now in Indiana, the Skating Masters. A lot of the kids, they’ve gone onto to other things, but like I say, come back and when they talk about skating, they get all excited that it was some of the best times of their lives.
JH: If someone were to ask you what you would tell someone who was thinking about moving to Northbrook, what would you say to them?
CB: Well, I think I’d say that, of course, the school district is outstanding, and this is probably the most important. The Park District is outstanding, we have the only Velodrome around, although they have one now way down south in Chicago. They have two skating rinks, if you’re interested in skating. They have all kid of activities. It’s just a great town. My wife was a nurse and worked for Dr. Ryan, so she spent a lot of time in the town, knew a lot of people that I didn’t know because I was in construction. I worked all over, very rarely I worked close to Northbrook. I would say it’s a great place. We had our choice of moving to Florida, retiring somewhere else, and we thought, our kids are all in the area. If we want to go to Florida, we’ll go to Florida, but now that we’re in Covenant Village, this is where we’re going to be, so it’s a great place.
JH: And Northbrook West, tell us a little bit more about what made Northbrook West such a special place to live?
CB: Looking back on it, I think the fact that we were all young, within maybe a 10 year range, all our kids were young. Christmas we had Santa Claus. We had to make our own entertainment because most of the people had several kids and they had some that were a little older and some that were a little younger. We had a yearly dance at the Legion Hall which was a real wing ding and a lot fun. We had street parties. Like I say, what had to be done, we had to do ourselves, so we planted trees. The extra I must say … not the … that’s a different county, the …
CB: Township, it really took care of us. I really can’t compare we were …
JH: Northbrook West is unincorporated then, it’s part of Township.
CB: Yeah. We’ve had several Northbrook policemen living in the area. We had people worked for the Post Office. Most of the people that lived out there, they either worked at Allstate Culligan or in town. We considered ourselves part of Northbrook, and I hope they did too.
JH: Definitely, most definitely. We’re getting to the end of our interview, so is there anything that you haven’t told us that you would like to hit upon?
CB: Well, getting back to the skating club, like I say, we’re in a rebuilding mode right now. We would like to get some notoriety, something like that for the skating club because we need more skaters right now, because with the high price of ice time with a small amount of families in it, it’s kind of hard to pay for the whole expense. Like I say, it’s a good sport where a brother and sister can be on the same team. You can compete with your friends, rather than your enemies. Well, I don’t know, when the gun goes off I don’t know who loves who, but it’s a clean sport. It’s regulated mostly by former skaters or parents, it’s a mom and pop organization.
JH: Good physical activity?
CB: It’s great. We have summer training sessions for the people who want to take advantage of it. A lot of people are on vacation of course, doing other things, which we encourage. I encourage a team sport and an individual sport because you learn from both. There’s a lot of dedication involved if you really get into it. Anyway, we try to make it enjoyable. You can work hard and still enjoy it too because we keep track of the progress the skaters are making. Myself, like I say, now I work with mostly the younger kids. We have a experienced, young head coach, Chris Stankiewicz, and he’s doing all kinds of summer stuff with the kids. It’s just a great place. We’ve been very happy since we lived out here in Northbrook. It’s a safe place to live, I think. It’s great, we’ve been very happy. I’m glad we moved out here, I’m glad we moved to Covenant Village now. Like I say, all our kids live within a 10 mile radius. We have 10 grandkids. One just got out of the Air Force, so he hasn’t been around a while. Some of the kids have graduated from college, so we don’t know where they’re going to be when they get jobs. This weekend, 4th of July, we had a big family gathering, took some fantastic pictures.
JH: Wonderful. Well Chuck, thank you so very much for participating in Northbrook Voices. Your memories of life in Northbrook and the Northbrook Skating Club will add a unique and personal perspective about the history of our village. Thank you.
CB: Well thank you very much, and I think it’s a great idea.