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‘A Mom Away from Home’ Retires at SLHS

Nancy Burke worked at the school since it opened.

Nancy Burke has seen a whole generation of students walk in and out of the doors of South Lakes High School.

Burke, a heath and physical education teacher and head athletic trainer, has been at South Lakes since the beginning when it opened its doors in 1978. She’s known all six principals. She attended all 27 graduations. And she’s gotten to know countless students.

"The best part has been watching these kids and seeing them turn into fantastic adults," said Burke, who worked her last day with the county school system on Halloween.

"It feels funny. OK, what am I going to do tomorrow?" said Burke, a McLean native.

ALL THE YEARS and all the people Burke has met while at South Lakes have melded into a series of stories and memories that she can recite like a favorite poem. And as good a trainer Burke has been over the years — a meteoric career marked by serving as the site chief medical officer for the 1996 Summer Olympics and as a trainer for the 2000 World Cup in Lacrosse — she is an even better storyteller.

"I could write a book, but it would probably be banned," joked Burke, who received her undergraduate degree in health and physical education and her master’s in biomechanics.

With fondness, she recalled how a group of students, when moving some weightlifting equipment, hit an overhead sprinkler several years ago. "Gallons and gallons of water that had been sitting up there for years came flying out," she said, holding back laughter. "The kids were so scared, they just took off." Burke said she and a few other administrators laughed the entire time as they sat ankle-deep in water, trying to keep it from entering supply closets.

This past week, it’s memories like these that have come to mind more and more for Burke as she’s said her good-byes to students and staff. But she rarely says good-bye, instead colleagues got hugs and then she regaled them with "remember the time…" and "could you believe…"

BURKE WAS A TEACHER and a trainer, but she made her career bringing the students and faculty at South Lakes into her family. "When I was a student here, she was like a mom away from home," said Galvin Morris, a former baseball player at South Lakes who is now head baseball coach.

Ellen Fay, a guidance counselor at South Lakes for 11 years, credits Burke for helping her daughter through difficult high school years. Burke was the trainer for Fay’s daughter, who ran track. "She couldn’t have made it through without Nancy," said Fay, whose daughter often asks about Burke. "Nancy went above and beyond in her support of the students and the community," said Fay.

In 2000, the community recognized Burke, giving her a Best of Reston award. "The community has much to be grateful for with all that Nancy has given to us," said Fay.

Ragnar Magnusson, an auto technician teacher at the school, called Burke a "super, great colleague."

"I remember she baked cookies for the kids when they fixed the golf cart," said Magnusson.

Principal Bruce Butler called her a "charter member" of South Lakes. "She’s one of the finest educators that I’ve ever come in contact with," said Butler. "Nancy is very knowledgeable and extremely committed to kids and South Lakes High School. She’s meant so much to us."

BURKE HAS ALSO come to know the best athletes ever to attend South Lakes, like Grant Hill, Alan Webb, Christy Winters Scott and Michael Jackson. "All these graduates have the comfort level to come back, which is great," said Burke, adding that Winters-Scott is now head coach of the girl’s basketball team.

But she remembers a not-so-comfortable visit by Hill when he was a rookie in the National Basketball Association. She said Hill came by his old health room to see her and said, "I had health here and I was a good student wasn’t I?" Burke kept quiet until Hill added, "After you talked to my dad." Then, they broke out laughing.

Burke said when Hill was a freshman playing varsity basketball, he, like many young athletes, needed reminding of the importance of academics.

Speaking of former athletes, Burke smiled when talking about Webb, who broke the four-minute mile while at South Lakes. "He probably has the best work ethic of any athlete I’ve ever seen," she said.

But Burke prided herself on treating all the student athletes equally.

"You have to treat them all the same," said Burke. "Because if you don’t, that changes the quality of your work and the ethic. And if you’re going to work with kids, you have to be ethical."

Much of that ethic has translated into years of objective support to coaches. "My job has been to give the coaches and the athletes as much support as I can so they can play well … and to be neutral," said Burke.

DURING HER YEARS as trainer, Burke has taken hundreds pictures of injuries, with permission from the athlete. She’s been able to integrate many of the photos into her health class curriculum. Burke said that many of her photos may end up in some medical textbooks in the near future.

But, of course, talking about the photos also reminded her of the time a South Lakes quarterback broke his collarbone. "He was planning on playing basketball in the spring, so I knew he was pretty upset about it," said Burke. Just trying to make sure he got off the field safely, Burke forgot to ask for a picture. A photo was always secondary to her concern for the safety of the athlete. But this time, as the student was carted off, he called out to Burke, "Hey, aren’t you going to take a picture," recalls Burke. "I was so concerned about him, it completely slipped my mind, but he wanted a picture." Later that year, the student was in Burke’s health class where the picture was part of a lesson plan.

BURKE ISN’T SURE what she’ll do yet in her life after South Lakes. Morris joked with her, telling her to be sure to get a visitor’s pass if she happens to stop by.

But Burke thinks she might travel a bit in the next few months. She has indefinite plans to visit Hawaii and the Grand Canyon. "I’ve never been there," she said.