Agnes C. Burke, 100, swept Grays Ferry sidewalk

Posted: October 29, 2012

AT FIRST, the family of Agnes C. Burke was a little embarrassed to see her outside every day sweeping the sidewalk at 29th and Tasker streets, in Grays Ferry.

But they soon realized that the task gave Agnes tremendous satisfaction. Not only was she keeping the neighborhood where she had lived all her life free of what seemed a never-ending accumulation of trash and grit, but she met and communicated with passers-by and made a social occasion of the job.

Agnes performed this labor from age 65 to 95, ignoring summer heat or the bitter cold of winter. No matter the weather, she was out there with her broom and her friendly personality.

She called it "straightening up the neighborhood," and it also gave her a chance to get exercise and fresh air, which she believed contributed to a long life mostly free of health problems, and allowed her to live to be 100.

She died Oct. 19. She had lived for the last two years at St. Monica Manor, a nursing home at 4th and Porter streets, but had lived since birth on 29th Street below Dickinson.

When Agnes was born, the youngest of the 10 children of John and Mary Flaherty, Irish immigrants, she was so sickly that the doctors doubted she would live long enough to make it to church to be baptized. So a priest was called to baptize her at home.

Obviously, she overcame her early weakness and went on not only to live for a century but to maintain a healthy life. She lived alone and took care of herself into her mid-90s.

In her 80s she studied tai chi, the Chinese martial art, at the Ralston House of the University of Pennsylvania, and said that the practice energized her.

Agnes also wondered if her survival of the devastating flu pandemic in 1918, which killed as many as 50 million people, had strengthened her. She recalled that when she arrived in St. Gabriel's Parochial School, she was horrified to find so many empty seats of children who had not survived.

Her daughter, Kathleen White, recalled that her mother looked out her front window one day and saw how messy her beloved street had become.

"She said, 'I can't stand it!' and went out and started cleaning it up," Kathleen said. "From there, it just blossomed."

Agnes met Michael Burke at an Irish dance before World War II. He was drafted into the Army and fought with the 2nd Armored Division in Europe. When he returned in 1945, they were married. Michael, a pipefitter, died in 1976.

After Agnes graduated from the eighth grade at St. Monica's, she went to work at age 14 for what was then the Wyeth Drug Co., on Washington Avenue. She worked there for 20 years, mostly making pills.

In 2005, KYW (1060-AM) honored her with a daylong series of interviews by the late Karin Phillips as part of its 40th anniversary. The station selected 40 community leaders whom they called "40 Local Legends of Philadelphia."

The next year, she was named Person of the Year by the Grays Ferry Community Council for her street-cleaning operation and her work on an urban garden near her home.

Besides her daughter, she is survived by a son, Michael Burke, and a granddaughter, Kimberly White.

Services: Were Saturday. Burial was in Holy Cross Cemetery.

Contact John F. Morrison at or 215-854-5573.

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