Blog Post by
Rev. Doug Mankell, Honorably Retired
During my years as pastor at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Logansport, Indiana, a very active church member during those years was a man named Charlie Burks. Although Charlie was retired during my pastorate, his life prior to his retirement was truly remarkable, to say the least.
Charlie had been a B-17 bomber pilot in World War 2 and his plane was shot down over Belgium in 1944. He was captured by the Nazis and was a POW for 381 days. He escaped in 1945 with two other pilots, and it took them 37 days to get back to the American lines. During those 37 days, they lived on potatoes that German farmers had left in the fields.
Charlie recalled in one of my conversations with him: “I love potatoes, they saved my life!”
After the war ended, Charlie returned to Logansport and was a Logansport police officer for several years. He then became a Federal U.S. Marshal and eventually was assigned to the U.S. Marshals’ office in New Orleans to assist with the integration of public schools. Charlie was one of the four Federal Marshals assigned to protect 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend the previously all-white William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans. On the first day of school in August of 1960, a large angry crowd had gathered outside the school, yelling racial epithets and throwing things at the four Marshals who were surrounding Ruby. The next day the angry crowd followed the same pattern. Eventually, the crowds became smaller and smaller. Charlie was then assigned to pick up Ruby at her home every day, escorting her to her classroom and remaining in the classroom all day. Present in the classroom were Charlie, Ruby, and the teacher. This pattern continued for the remainder of the school year. No white students set foot in that school.
I might mention that the experience I just shared inspired Norman Rockwell to create his famous painting, ‘’The Problem We All Live With,’’ which depicts Ruby Bridges entering William Franz Elementary School surrounded by four Federal Marshals. Also, Charlie went on to take part in more than a dozen school integration operations, including universities in Missouri, Alabama, and Georgia. He often said that his goal was never glory or recognition for himself. He emphasized that he was simply doing his job of protecting those who needed it at the time.
After a long career as a U.S. Federal Marshal, Charlie and his wife, Betty, moved back to Logansport around 1995 to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. During his retirement years, he was active in the community sharing his experiences with students in area schools and also with service clubs. Articles about him also appeared from time to time in area newspapers and he was sometimes interviewed by radio and television reporters on days of national significance. He also maintained contact with Ruby Bridges who was still living in New Orleans. He was a faithful member of Calvary Presbyterian during these years, serving as a deacon and rarely missing Sunday worship.
Charlie Burks died on June 19, 2017, at the age of 95. Among the large number of people who attended the visitation at the funeral home was Ruby Bridges herself. Although people were surprised to see her, she was greeted warmly by everyone. Ruby also mentioned that she would not be attending Charlie’s funeral because she felt her presence would be a distraction.
The funeral service for Charlie Burks was held on June 23, 2017, in the sanctuary of Calvary Presbyterian Church. Among those participating, I was privileged to share some reflections about Charlie’s Christian commitment and church involvement at Calvary. The service was truly a celebration of a life well-lived for the glory of God and the benefit of society. To God be the glory!
Rev. Doug Mankell