Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 6, 2011

Jim Burch

Global vision, local action

by Sarah Trauben

When Jim Burch considers the pursuits that earned him a Lifetimes of Achievement award, his attitude is characteristically humble.

"If I had a lifetime of achievement, it's because of her," he said, gesturing to his wife since 1950, Wileta. He credits his community, not personal actions, for the bulk of his achievements.

Born in Evanston, Ill., to a World War I veteran and a religious pacifist, Burch grew up in the shadow of war, which, along with the dangers of nuclear power, was to become his greatest concern later in life. Burch was drafted into the military in 1944, serving in a South Pacific unit that didn't see combat. In the devastating aftermath of two atomic bombings, Burch's unit climbed up Wakayama Beach in Japan to participate in occupying the country. He toured the streets of Osaka and Hiroshima and found them to be strikingly similar.

"Block after block after block was just rubble. Hiroshima didn't look too different, and it didn't register as terrible as it was," he said.

Having had enough of war, Burch convinced an army radio station to hire him. At age 19, he became director of the army radio station in Osaka.

After a stint in Hollywood's radio business writing for the likes of Gene Autry, Burch made partner at an advertising agency in Arizona and met his wife Wileta, a teller at the firm's one major account: First Federal Savings. He proposed on the second date, and the two married within six months. They have two children.

In 1951, he moved his young family to northern California and began a 23-year career with the San Francisco-based advertising agency BBDO, where he created award-winning advertisements for corporations such as PG&E, General Electric, Pacific Telephone and Standard Oil.

Burch took early retirement and began his second career as a volunteer activist in 1974 after getting involved with the Sequoia Seminar. The consciousness-raising group combined Christian teachings with science and counseled members to take responsibility for their role in the "interconnected, interdependent universe," he said.

He also became president of a related Palo Alto nonprofit, Creative Initiative, which focused on anti-war education. A talk hosted by the group caused him to change his position on former client General Electric's nuclear-power programs. He established Project Survival, a statewide volunteer organization on behalf of the Nuclear Safeguards Initiative Proposition 15, which would have set strict limits on output at existing plants and required legislative approval prior to the construction of additional plants.

Creative Initiative garnered national attention when three participants simultaneously quit their jobs as GE nuclear program engineers and took public stands against nuclear power. "They said an advertising man was going to support them," Burch recalled. The initiative was defeated in June 1976, but no new plants have been constructed since.

Creative Initiative changed its name to Foundation for a Global Community in 1990. Burch produced a series of nature documentaries for the foundation that were featured on PBS. He served as a trustee until it liquidated its assets last December, donating them to various peace and sustainability projects internationally.

In 1999, Burch was elected to the Palo Alto City Council. Though the job required a local focus, he brought his sense of global interconnectedness to city government.

"It's one world; it's one Earth; it's one planet; it's one ecosystem. We're either all going to make it or nobody's going to make it," he said when elected mayor at age 78 in 2005, the oldest mayor in city history.

"There are a number of things that are great about Palo Alto that are an inheritance," he said. "I offer the perspective of not getting caught up in the everyday pushing and shoving, not just solving the immediate problems."

Burch's most recent civic work includes a successful campaign to decorate the Palo Alto shuttle with photos of local residents and humorous sayings to boost awareness of the free service. He also said he'd like to write down personal stories of the serendipitous turns in his life for the benefit of his grandchildren.

"They really like how I proposed on the second date," he said with a smile. "What a privilege it's been to live this life. What would have happened if I hadn't gone to Phoenix and met Wileta?"

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