Our parents instilled in my siblings and me a definite philosophy of life — always do your best, study hard and get good grades, be kind to others, give back to your community.
But please don’t think we sat around on Saturday nights discussing how to eliminate world hunger. We laughed. A lot! Our parents warned us against taking ourselves — or life — too seriously. They also instilled in us more than a nuance of intentional irreverence.
So when I got the phone call from older brother Robert this past July, telling me that he’d “won a big award called the Aldo Leopold,” my first reaction was: that’s wonderful but who’s Aldo? Within a week, my sister and other brother questioned when Robert had been friends with Leopold and Loeb. Later we dubbed it the “Up the Aldo” award. Pure, unadulterated Burkhardt humor.
Then we received ceremony invitations from the Lawrenceville School, my brothers’ alma mater,. The letter read, “The Aldo Leopold Award, also known as the Lawrenceville Medal, represents the highest honor bestowed by the school on an alumnus in recognition of ‘brilliant, life-long work in a significant field of endeavor.’” Well now. Up the Aldo indeed.
Last weekend we sat with pride watching my 75-year-old brother mount the stage at an all-school gathering of its 820 students. In introducing Robert to the student body, a list of prior Aldo Leopold Award winners was read. They included both a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner, the former president of Princeton University, the president of Honduras, a Deputy Secretary of State, a Saudi prince, rock singer Huey Lewis (and the News), among other celebrated figures.
Robert’s road to the Aldo award was a tad checkered. After graduating from Princeton, he served in the Peace Corps, received a Masters from Columbia and a Ph.D. from Union Graduate School. He was a prep school teacher, intern with the U.S. Office of Education, plumber in a San Francisco commune, juggler and barker for the Bay Area’s Pickle Family Circus, and director of the California Conservation Corps.
Ultimately he became the founder of and head master for 21 years at Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Colorado. This year-round school, funded by the Honda Corporation, became a magnet for students who were passionate about changing their lives but had slipped through the cracks and never expected to graduate. At Eagle Rock, most did.
We knew Robert was talented but we never guessed he could rap. Standing at the lectern, he said, “With apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda …. How does this small town day boy, Irish-rooted twin boy, rise to joy in national service, learn to teach with love and purpose, find a way to join the circus…” He went on for 10 minutes, never missing a beat or rhyme, and concluded, “I’ll cease this word invention, with thanks for your attention, and invite questions and/or any dissension you might care to mention…” Standing O! Then he juggled for a few minutes.
I couldn’t help but think how proud my late parents would be. I also thought back to growing up on that former horse farm an hour north of New York City. We spent many summers scouting the property but never found the Groom’s Treasure.
I cay now say, with intentional reverence, that I have indeed, and finally, found it — my wonderful, talented, altruistic and treasure of a brother.
“You don’t ever go to work if you love what you do."
My brother Robert Burkhardt’s philosophy of life.