After the waitress took our order for a juicy sirloin steak dinner that promised to be the best in the area, we waited for our salads to be brought out from the kitchen at Casey’s Restaurant in Limestone.
When Myra Burke, who I had known at Camp Cornplanter, came through the swinging door with a smile on her face, I knew it would be a great evening. What was unique about Myra, who had Down syndrome, was that through her sweet, loving nature with everyone she met she had become the face and heart of Casey’s. One could say that Myra, who had worked at Casey’s more than 40 years ago, was one of the local pioneers who blazed the trail into the work world for other special-needs people.
The wonderful memories of Myra, who passed away eight years ago, were brought front and center during a recent Times Herald interview with her brother, Armand Burke, regarding the proposed demolition of the former restaurant. During our conversation, I mentioned that I had worked as a counselor with Myra back in the 1970s at the former camp for special-needs children in Allegheny National Forest near Warren, Pa. I was in high school at the time and was familiar with Cornplanter through my younger brother, Tommy, who also has Down syndrome and camped there several summers.
During the two summers that I worked as a counselor, I learned the meaning of hard work. We counselors stayed around the clock at Cornplanter and only had one 24-hour block of time off each week. It was tough, non-stop work as the counselors stayed in the cabins with the campers overnight. We only had an hour or two off each night that we used to visit with other counselors in the large dining hall.
Despite the demanding schedule, we made plenty of friends among the counselors and campers. Of the latter, Myra was the camper friend who was loved and befriended by many of the counselors.
Consequently, when a bunch of the counselors learned that Myra worked in the kitchen of Casey’s, which was owned by her dad, Pat Burke, that was the restaurant we wanted to visit.
When she came out of the kitchen, Myra immediately came to our table and had hugs for everyone. Her presence there was inspirational to me, as she served as a symbol of all of the possibilities that were available to my own brother, Tommy. Now, as an adult, Tommy is very much a part of his community in work and civic activities.
Armand, and his daughter, Maria Burke, said Myra, nicknamed “Sister” by the family, was loved by all who visited the restaurant.
“She was a great favorite at the restaurant. Bob Lanier would come over and he would always go in the kitchen to say hello to Myra,” Armand said of the former St. Bonaventure University basketball star.
In commenting on her early years, Armand said Myra was born during a time when families were strongly urged to institutionalize babies with special needs. He said his parents visited Polk Institution with Myra but didn’t like what they saw and refused to acquiesce to the doctors’ suggestions.
“It was heart-breaking,” Armand said of Polk. “I was old enough to understand what was happening and when my mother said no (to institutionalizing Myra) I just started sobbing.”
Instead, Myra, was brought home with her parents and brother. When she was older, she was sent for schooling at St. Coletta’s School in Massachusetts, which was operated by an order of Franciscan Sisters. While there, Myra learned to read, write and count.
“Every day we would have Myra read the Times Herald,” Maria remembered. “Myra would practice her reading with the newspaper.”
When Armand married and had children, Myra helped out by babysitting her nieces and nephews while he and his wife worked at Casey’s.
“She was my only babysitter until I was in fourth grade,” Maria recalled. In later years, she was shocked when she heard another kid refer to her aunt in a derogatory, hurtful way. After all, this was her beloved aunt who took care of her needs when she was little. Myra even trained the new staff on how to prepare salads and relish trays, and gave orders to little Maria in the kitchen of Casey’s when she needed more vegetables brought in.
“I didn’t know she was different from anyone else,” Maria said.
After Myra’s mother died in the late 1970s, she eventually began working at The ReHabilitation Center in Olean, which also provided her with residential housing.
“The Rehab Center did a super job with her and she was somewhat independent,” her brother said, noting Myra had lived in an apartment for a period of time. “The Rehab Center was a very important part of her life and she loved it.”
In the years since Myra’s death from the complications of dementia, her family has missed her, but they reflect on how glad they are that she was a part of their lives.
It’s a good bet that all who knew “Sister” at Cornplanter, Casey’s and The Rehab Center share the same sentiments.
(Contact Kate Day Sager at email@example.com.)