Monday, October 8, 2007

Profiles in Greatness: Russell P. Burke

I’ve decided to use this blog to honor a few individuals whom I admire and respect. These “profiles in greatness” are not intended to be comprehensive biographies, but just a few snapshots of the serious, humorous, and / or revealing sides of some cool people. The first honoree to agree to this treatment is Russell Burke, my roommate from the first part of graduate school here at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

Putting it all out there

Russell has many positive qualities, but the one that defines him most is his remarkable openness. He somehow defies the invisible boundaries that normally prevent forthright communication between new acquaintances or people of different social status. This can be startling or off-putting at first, but most people find it charming once they realize Russ is “for real”, and they typically respond by becoming more open and comfortable themselves. I got a hint of Russ’ candid nature before I even met him. We had both been accepted at VIMS and were looking for housing and roommates when Russ sent the following email to the VIMS listserv, which was forwarded to me:

To all graduate students,

My name is Russell Burke. I am 22 years old from Long Island, New York. I am finishing my undergraduate degree in marine and environmental science aat Rider University in New Jersey as of this May. I will be attending VIMS as a full-time graduate student as I pursue my Ph.D under the advisement of Dr. Rom Lipcius. My interests are blue crab and bivalve ecology with an emphasis on estuarine nutrient cycling.

I will be arriving in early July to assist in ongoing research at VIMS. By then I would like to have housing established. My hope is to have a townhouse with a few different roommates (one is fine, but I am not adverse to the idea of more than one). I will be on a fellowship, so I should have no problem paying my fraction of the rent throughout the year. I am an easy going guy who enjoys diversity in character and personality. The only people that I have a difficulty dealing/living with are those individuals who are inherently mean, pompous, greedy, and overly egotistical. I consider myself a kind and loving person who is accepting of virtually everyone, but the aforementioned qualities are real turn-offs for me. With that being said, I love all types of sports, I am open to trying new things, and am pretty optimistic most of the time. Also, I am clean, conscientious of my responsibilities as a housemate, reliable, and trustworthy. If these are qualities you would like in a roommate and a friend, please e-mail or call me at (xxx) xxx-xxxx (until May 14th) or (xxx) xxx-xxxx (after May 17th). I will be making one visit at the end of May or the beginning of June to survey housing, take care of paper work, and purchase/register a car in Virginia, so this would be an opportunity to meet me if you are in the area.

Thank you for your attention. I look forward to meeting you all soon and making a match for prospective housemates soon.

Russ Burke

It was obvious to me then that Russ was at least a little strange, but he sounded like a guy who really cared about life and people (not just science and academics) so I gambled and offered to be his roommate. It turned out I was the only one who replied to the email, not counting a bitter, older grad student upset that Russ had mentioned the fellowship. Anyway, I ended up getting an apartment with Russ, who turned out to be the best friend and roommate I could ever have wished for.

Comedian Extraordinaire

Besides Russ’ openness, his next most defining quality is his nearly ceaseless, irreverent humor, which ranges from appallingly corny to quite brilliant at times. Part of the reason Russ’ humor works is that he is never self-conscious about the way it is received, even when he himself is the only one laughing. Russ just keeps going and going until you’re either laughing at his jokes or laughing at him. One of the trademarks of Russ humor is anthropomorphization of animals or puppets, most notably “Fox Number 1”, an endearing scoundrel with irrepressible coprophagous tendencies.

Fox Number 1 has a rich and detailed history, but some of Russ’ funniest characterizations are one-timers. Like the one time we were playing the vidoegame Streetfighter II and Russ was speaking in a husky Japanese accent for his character, the sumo wrestler E. Honda: “LIPID… is the building-block of LIFE!” I guess you had to be there. Russ says he learned to be funny as a chubby kid just trying to diffuse the teasing of bullies. The pressure to prove himself and be accepted also drove young Russ to become really good at sports and games.

A Competitive Nature

One thing I could count on when playing videogames with Russ was that he would never give up and he would never go easy on me. So I usually lost, except for in the game “Mortal Kombat”, where I learned a really cheap move- the crouching roundhouse-kick. I would use it to knock him off his feet again and again before he could block or retaliate. With the move I beat him for 15 straight rounds, then he figured it out, improved on it, and beat me for 30 straight rounds.

At that point I was so frustrated that we agreed never to play the game again.

Stubborn yet Spontaneous

When I first met Russ he had a flattop. This was not the usual short-all-over cut, but an actual, square-on-top, highway patrolman-style flattop. Russ is pretty good looking, but the haircut was very unflattering, and everyone told him so. Still he would not change it, maintaining that he’d had the haircut since he was a kid, he liked it, and he kept it as a matter of principle... perhaps as a symbol of his free will and independence. One day, though, the flat top was gone. It was Russ’ decision. When he decided he wanted to change he just did it.


Russ has been through some times. His dad passed away from Lou Gehrig’s Disease during our second year of grad school. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for Russ to face the loss of his loving father. But Russ the comedian has a mature, philosophical side, which showed as he dealt with the sadness and helped keep his family close through it all. In that time I think Russ grew and changed a lot.


Russ’ sense of humor and his genuine and patient interest in people and emotions gave him a way with women.

For a while Russ was known as a sort-of Casanova for his prolific dating. But like his flattop haircut, that would change suddenly. Russ met Candy Huayhualla, a beautiful Peruvian woman, on the rather whimsical Internet rating and dating site, "hotornot". Honestly, from the way he met her I was a little skeptical that Candy would become a serious love for Russ.

But I soon saw that Candy was different. She completely captured Russ’ heart and consolidated his once-diffuse attentions. Despite the pressures of distance, and a fiercely protective future mother-in law, Russ decided Candy was THE ONE. In typical Russ fashion (overdoing it) he spent nine days preparing our apartment for the marriage proposal. There was a giant poster commemorating all the milestones of the Russ & Candy relationship, along with a huge “Will You Marry Me?” banner hung in Russ’ room. Flowers, teddy bears, cute cards, candy… the apartment was stuffed with enough romantic accoutrements to supply a Hallmark store for 10 years. Thank god Candy said yes.

An old day passes; A new day begins

Both Russ and I shared a tendency to accumulate stuff. I accumulated windsurfing stuff, and he accumulated everything else. We had barely managed to combine our lives into Apartment 28B, and with Candy now spending more time there, too, it was getting pretty crowded. It made sense for me to find a new place, so I swapped dwellings with Candy, and she and Russ made the apartment their home. They were married last summer and are still going strong. With his personal life in a great place, Russ has renewed his academic and research efforts. He is now charging towards the thrilling conclusion of his doctoral research on oyster reef restoration in Chesapeake Bay. He looks forward to an eventual teaching position on a university faculty, where he can inspire the next generation of budding scientists to follow their dreams, even if it means breaking the mold of conventions.


Anonymous said...

This Russ character sounds like a swell guy!

Unknown said...

Russ is an old friend of mine. That was beautiful...and well put. It is hard to capture in words what an amazing person Russ is...this was a wonderful start. I really enjoyed reading this.

James Douglass said...

Hey Kate- Glad you enjoyed my homage to Russ. :) We live in different states now, but I got to hang out with him a few months ago at a science meeting and he's still as "Russ" as ever.