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John Burke Statue Dedication


Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol was established in 1862 to celebrate individuals who reflect historic renown or distinguished service in their state’s history. Long before the well-known statue of Sacagawea was enshrined in the Hall in 2003, the first North Dakotan selected was Governor “Honest” John Burke. Burke was a reform-minded governor who also became the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

The sculpture captures action and personality generally missing from such grandiose creations. Given Burke’s background of service in the state house, senate, governor’s seat and even the North Dakota Supreme Court, the sculpted action, with its bustling countenance, seems well deserved.

While the majority of the statues’ subjects are in classic stationary poses, Burke’s right leg is thrust forward as if to give the lawmaker movement. His coat is draped over his left arm, his hat is in his left hand, and a rolled document before him in his right hand.

The dedication of Burke’s statuary was a grand affair on this date in 1963. Preeminent North Dakota politicians and citizens were in attendance in the US Capitol Rotunda for the unveiling. John Burke’s family sat with sculptor Dr. Avard Fairbanks, North Dakota Governor William Guy, North Dakota Representatives Hjalmar Nygaard and Don Short, North Dakota Senators Milton Young and Quentin Burdick, and president Pro Tempore of the US Senate, Cal Hyden.

Music was provided by the US Marine Corps Band and the benediction was given by Governor Burke’s youngest brother, the Right Reverend Monsignor Ambrose J. Burke.

In his address at the unveiling, North Dakota’s junior senator Quentin Burdick recalled Burke’s association with this father, Usher Burdick. He said, “His outstanding career as a lawyer should not be overlooked. …John Burke and my father worked together as partners in their Fargo law firm in the 1920s. Their partnership was dissolved when John Burke went to the Supreme Court, and a short time later my father went to the United States Congress. Their friendship, however, was never dissolved. John Burke lived long enough for glory, but not long enough for humanity.”

In February of the same year, a duplicate statue of Burke was dedicated in the hallway of the North Dakota Capitol. Today it can be seen outside the Capitol’s entrance.

In addition to John Burke, Fairbanks created two other figures for statuary hall representing Wyoming and Washington. Another well-known North Dakota work by Fairbanks is the pioneer family that sits at the entrance to the Capitol grounds, which also served as the key image for North Dakota’s 1989 centennial celebration.

Dakota Datebook written by Steve Stark

Sources: 1963 United States Printing Office, Acceptance of the Statue of John Burke Presented by the State of North Dakota