100-year-old Covid-19 victim had brushes with history and great stories to tell

100-year-old Covid-19 victim had brushes with history and great stories to tell

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As a boy, William L. Burch would have been the geek or the nerd of his generation, said one of his three sons.

He liked to deep dive into a topic, or the latest technology, and then tell others what he had learned, Roger Burch explained.

After a career as an engineer, working in Buffalo on some of the biggest projects of the 20th century – including the Manhattan Project and the Apollo lunar module – Burch lived since 2016 in the McAuley Residence, a nursing home hard hit by Covid-19.

In late April, McAuley detected its first case of the virus in a resident. Ten days later, Burch's fever spiked, and he, too, was tested. When his case of Covid-19 was confirmed on May 7, he was moved to the St. Joseph Post-Acute Center, a nursing home for Covid-19 patients in Orchard Park.

His son, who was able to Skype with him twice, doubts that his father recognized him.

Burch died May 11. He was 100 years old.

Roger Burch said his father had been in mostly good health before he caught the virus. He had avoided many of the ailments that often hit people at an advanced age: diabetes, heart disease, cancer. But dementia had "caught up with him,'' his son said.

Burch was born in Gary, Ind., and grew up in other places, including Denver, Colo. When he worked in a chemistry lab, he impressed a supervisor who suggested he study at the Colorado School of Mines. He graduated in 1944, after three years of coursework rather than four. He was part of an advanced program that tried to move engineers through quickly because they were needed for the war effort.

With his bachelor of science degree in metallurgical engineering, Burch began work at the Linde Corp. in Kenmore. His first engineering assignment was on the Manhattan Project, helping Linde develop methods to concentrate fissionable uranium isotopes for use in the first atomic bomb.

At Linde, Burch met his future wife, Olive Lightfoot, a chemical laboratory technician. When he died, they had been married for 72 years.

In July, Ronald Burch said he visited his father with a newspaper commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo mission that landed men on the moon. "That's the lunar excursion module," William Burch said as he saw that historic photograph. During a 35-year career with Bell Aircraft, Burch, among other tasks, trained welders to fabricate critical components for the lunar module.

In retirement, Burch threw himself into his passion for bird watching. When a pair of peregrine falcons nested atop Buffalo's Statler Hotel in the 1990s, he volunteered to help the state Department of Environmental Conservation install a camera to monitor them. He would watch the birds from street level, and when passers-by asked him what he was looking at, Burch would tell them all about the falcons, Roger Burch said.

Burch's oddest brush with history came in 1933. He was a teenager working in a radio repair shop in Joplin, Mo., where his family had lived for a while. A well-dressed customer had a radio installed in his car, then asked how it picked up police frequencies, Roger Burch said, repeating the story his father told his sons over the years.

William Burch told the customer that the radio could not pick up a police frequency, and such a radio could be installed only in police vehicles.

Days later, William Burch saw a news story of a shootout in Joplin where two police officers were killed when they tried to arrest a gang of suspected robbers in their hideout. The robbers got away but left behind undeveloped film in which they were pictured mugging for a camera.

Looking at the pictures, William Burch, his son said, realized he had installed a radio for Clyde Barrow, who was one half of the outlaw couple known as Bonnie and Clyde.

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