Gaspee Days Grand Marshal Robert Burke cannot remember the last time he had a boring day. A self-dubbed “renaissance man,” Burke said he lives a life of “pure enjoyment” and every day is different.
In his role as owner of Providence’s Pot Au Feu, Burke says on an average day he can be a marketer, a cook, an entertainer or even a handyman. He is also the founder of Providence’s Independence Trail, a tour around the city with stops at 50 historical landmarks. Burke serves as a storyteller, guiding people through the tour both in person and through their cell phones.
If one chooses to walk the 2.5-milelong trail, markers along the route provide a phone number to dial. A recording of Burke’s voice will come on, providing a detailed story behind each landmark.
“I am teaching history 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” said Burke. “It’s this feeling that I am leaving a legacy. Someone may be listening to this recording 50 years from now.”
How will one find Independence Trail? Well, Burke has taken care of that, too.
“I get to paint a green line on 2.5 miles of my city,” said Burke, who even has his own line-painting machine.
There is also a story he loves to tell behind the marking of the trail. While he created the trail in 2006, Burke could not mark the route on city streets until 2011. Appropriately enough, Burke received permission from the city of Providence, state of Rhode Island and U.S. government to mark the trail on May 4, 2011, exactly 235 years after Rhode Island declared independence from England. The document was even signed in the exact same room those men signed their declaration.
A fourth-generation Rhode Islander, Burke has always loved Rhode Island history. His grandfather owned a portion of Roger Williams National Memorial Park, and Burke even grew up on Roger Williams Avenue. While attending La Salle Academy, Burke solidified his love of storytelling by taking every history elective he could. He may have studied political science in college, but Burke said he is “a student of freedom.”
“I have been fascinated with freedom since I was young,” said Burke. “Think of the blood and treasure that has been expelled for freedom. It is an evolving product; we are still in the process of creating it today.”
Burke is remarkably honored to be Grand Marshal for this year’s Gaspee Days Parade. He said events such as Gaspee Days are important because it prompts young Rhode Islanders to question why these celebrations happen and learn about the state’s important role in U.S. history.
“Every Rhode Island kid should be able to tell you, off the tip of their tongue, all of the great things about Rhode Island,” said Burke. “We were never taught the arguments to fight the negative comments about Rhode Island.”
Burke believes Gaspee Days, Independence Trail and other historical celebrations can change that.
“I think the reason this happened is because they wrote the history books at Harvard instead of Brown,” said Burke.
As he shares stories of Rhode Island’s history, Burke affectionately refers to the state as “Rogue’s Island,” a nickname he believes can still apply today.
“We were a haven for the reviled, the misfits. It is in our DNA, this contrary streak,” said Burke.
Adding Grand Marshal to his long list of titles is only adding to Burke’s goal of living the most interesting life he can.
“It is all a part of getting up each day and knowing it is going to be a great day,” said Burke.