Tom Burke

Living, Breathing Economics

by Kelsey Rowlson

Horizon Reporter

Tom Burke is known for his ability to teach the concept of diminishing returns with such an effect that nobody in his economics class should miss the answer on a test.  The law of diminishing returns means that as you continue to get more of something, you like it less.

“I actually got this from an Econ instructor at the University of Washington,” Burke said.  “I can’t do it the way he does it, with beer.  I teach the concept using peanut butter pie.  The pie at the Colophon Café is second to nothing.  Get somebody who likes peanut butter pie.  I’ll buy all the peanut butter pie they can eat, but they have to eat it.”

For every bite of pie a student takes, they have to then write down the value of the bite, Burke said.  “The more you eat, value goes down until at some point it goes negative.”  Of course, Burke doesn’t inform students that he’s never going to stop buying the pie so ultimately, they’re going to lose and have to pick up the tab.

“I had two students and they were competitive, they each had four pieces of pie,” he said.  “They were sick for days.”  Burke also remembers one student saying, “You’re never going to stop buying are you?”  To which Burke responded, “Nope.”

All of Burke’s life, he’s been living economics, from where he decided to live, to what job he wanted vs. the job he should have.

“It is simple,” Burke said.  “We always do what we think is best for us.  We make choices based on expected outcomes for the paths which present themselves.  There are advantages to all paths and disadvantages.  But the cost of choosing one path is losing all those advantages in the other path.”

“I wanted to teach college,” Burke said about his own choice.  “However, I had three daughters and a wife.  I had dreams and expectations for my life and what I wanted to do.  What I felt I needed to provide as a dad and husband, I couldn’t do on the wages of a college professor.  I did what I felt best.  The cost of having a business career was less than the cost of having a teaching career.”

So, after Burke weighed these options he decided to put teaching on hold for the sake of his family.  “To teach, I would have to give up what life I wanted for my family, providing for them as I knew I could.  To have a business career I had to give up what I wanted to do in exchange for what I thought I should do.  I chose to do what cost me the least, giving up my ‘wants’ to get my ‘shoulds.’  Every choice has its cost.”

Tom Burke’s life journey started in Fargo, N.D., although he “wanted to be born in California.”  The middle of his journey included getting kicked out of college, a stint in the Marines, and owning a chain of businesses in California.  And somehow, it settled right here in Bellingham, the city of subdued excitement, where he now teaches at Whatcom Community College.

For a big portion of his life, Burke has been in school.  Over the years he’s attended four different colleges and is “two chapters away” from receiving his fourth degree.    All in all, Burke has received his BA, a law degree, his MBA, and has almost completed his doctorate of business administration.

“It was one of those absolutely perfect summer days,” said Burke, referring to the day in 1994 when he moved to Bellingham.  It was in fact his birthday and after coming up to Bellingham three to four times a year to sail, because “you can’t seriously sail” in San Diego, Burke decided to take the first job that came up.  Whatcom was that job.

“This is what I really, really wanted to do from the start,” Burke said.  “When I got out of business I wanted to come back to teaching.”  And having helped both small and large companies added to Burke’s teaching skills in the long run.

Currently, Burke is teaching business law, introduction to economics, and business math.  While at Whatcom he has also taught introduction to business, business research and writing, business ethics, and business finance.  This is his seventh year teaching at Whatcom.

In the 1980’s, Burke owned a chain of computer stores in San Diego for five or six years before selling them.  “It was a tough time, computers were just starting to come out.”

The reason Burke sold his stores?  “I set my goal to retire when I was 40, which was stupid.”  After selling off his stores, Burke ‘retired’ into teaching.  This didn’t last very long though because soon after Burke went back into his attorney work.

While at Whatcom, Burke has suffered from some major health issues.  In 2008 Burke found out that he had cancer.  This took Burke out for three official weeks of school although he admits he “should’ve been out for six months.”   When Burke came back to work he  set up his office as a bedroom and he’d sleep for hours.

More recently, in the summer of 2009, Burke suffered a heart attack while in Tampa, Fla.  “The heart thing would’ve taken me out for a year,” he said.  But it didn’t.  Burke came back to school soon after he suffered the heart attack.  Although he admits that he wasn’t top notch when he came back and maybe should’ve waited a bit longer.  However, Burke also said he feels the best he’s felt in a while this quarter.

Outside the classroom, Burke has two passions: sailing and church.

“He’s one of the kindest, most generous people I have ever met,” said Jimmy Kelsey, Economics professor at Whatcom.  Kelsey, who has suffered from some health issues added, “He spent more than three weeks of his life taking care of me after my surgery…he was at the hospital every day.”

Kelsey also adds that Burke is “entertaining and interesting.”  Along with entertaining, Merrianne Bieler, Accounting professor at Whatcom, describes Burke as having “a sarcastic wit…he has a lot of fun being sarcastic.”  She continues, “He loves debates.  He’s trying to get people to think outside the box and debate him.”

In the end, what Burke wants to let everyone know that he really likes being at Whatcom.  “This is the only place I’ve worked in my career where I play with the people I work with,” he said.  “These people are my friends.  This is going to be the only place in your career, probably in your life where the president doesn’t have a reserved place in the parking lot.  She has to find her own parking space.”

As advice to students from his life experiences, Burke has this to say: “You will select your path on what available path seems best for you, the same as I did, the same as our parents before us did.”


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