Gemma Burke helped build UCIS to its current form

Glema Burke, who had a central part in building the University Center for International Studies (UCIS) into its modern form, died April 7, 2019.

UCIS Business Manager Rose Wooten, hired by Burke in 1998, recalled her as “very loyal to Pitt” and integral to UCIS at its most formative time, “when UCIS became what it is today.

“She was and remains to me one of the kindest people I have ever known,” Wooten said.

Burke was hired in 1979 by then-director Burkart Holzner as a finance assistant and promoted to assistant to the director, then assistant director of management and finally director of management. She served UCIS for 27 years, until her retirement in 2006, and had begun her Pitt career in 1970 in the Graduate School of Public Health.

UCIS was established in 1968, Wooten noted, but much of its current structure was still under development decades later. If Holzner was the visionary, Burke was masterful at making such visions happen, working with the provost, the chancellor, or indeed anyone at Pitt to create new structures, find funding and ensure that UCIS expanded and improved, Wooten said.

She oversaw Title VI funding for the Asian Studies Center, the Center for Russian and East European Studies, the Center for Latin American Studies and the European Studies Center. She helped establish many UCIS endowments, including the International Studies Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Fund for International Studies and the Malmberg and Heinz fellowships. For the latter, Burke would often help to orient new fellows to the University and the city and find them housing.

She was vital to launching the Global Studies Program, now the Global Studies Center, and helped plan the Fifth General Chautauqua Conference on U.S.-Soviet Relations, which Pitt hosted in 1989, at the height of Russia’s “glasnost” openness.

In 1997, Burke was one of the first recipients of the Chancellor’s Award for Staff, recognizing excellence and work far beyond expectations. She retired in 2006.

Wooten recalled joining Burke’s staff at a time when Burke was in the process of centralizing the business operations of UCIS’s multiple centers, handling both human resources and budgetary issues.

“In that role, it’s not always easy,” Wooten said. “You have to tell people ‘No’; you have to tell people ‘This isn’t the policy.’ She would always tell people in the kindest way.”

Burke didn’t shy from the tougher moments of personnel oversight, Wooten added, but her method “was respectful. She was such a professional. Once you started working for her and found out what she was like, you wanted to stay.”

Burke also looked out for her employees and colleagues, Wooten said: “She would always make sure people were aware of family benefits for Pitt staff. She was a very good friend. She was a sounding board for personal things as well … and was very trustworthy and confidential.”

Glema Collins Burke was born on June 24, 1940, in McCombs, Ky. She was married to Gerald W. Burke for 42 years, until his death in 2002.

She is survived by her children, Sandra, David and Carrie; grandchildren Alyssa, Michael, Lindsey, Zach, Hannah, Jacob, Olivia and Nicholas; companion Ralph Ness; sisters Arizona and Jeanne; and many nieces and nephews.

Memorial contributions are suggested to Covenant Presbyterian Church, Jumonville Christian Camp and Retreat Center, Laurel Faith in Action or Excela Health Home Care and Hospice.