DIXON – Jim Burke, the man at the city's helm during what has been called the biggest municipal theft in U.S. history, died at 8:35 this morning at his home, the Lee County coroner's office confirmed.
Burke, who had been diagnosed with cancer, was 78. A cause of death was not available.
Burke was the first to alert the FBI of his suspicions about former city Comptroller Rita Crundwell, who was convicted in 2013 of federal wire fraud for diverting more than $53 million in city funds into her own bank account over a period of about 20 years.
Burke knew Crundwell most of her life, and she had worked at City Hall since she was 16. Her betrayal stunned, saddened and astonished him, and left what many felt was a stain on his administration.
Through it all, though, he remained upbeat, confident that Dixon eventually would overcome the loss.
"It has been a fantastic, rewarding experience to be a part of all the positive changes in the community during my 16 years as mayor," Burke said in December 2014, when he announced his decision not to seek re-election.
At the time, he said he hoped, and he thought, that his time as mayor would be remembered by the development that's taken place downtown and in the central business district. He also said that his health did not play a part in his decision, and that, after surgery to remove a tumor that September, he was cancer-free.
The owner of United Country Burke Realty in Dixon, he said he wanted to spend more time focusing on his business and his personal life.
Burke, a Democrat, was elected to his first term in 1999, when he defeated two-term incumbent Don Sheets by 235 votes. He also served three terms as a commissioner, from 1967 to 1979, for the streets and public property departments.
Had he won a fifth term, it would have been the most consecutive terms for a Dixon mayor since 1911.
Local businessman Liandro Arellano Jr. won the race in April 2015.
On the heels of the Crundwell scandal, a new managerial form of city government was voted in, replacing the commission form, and all new council members were elected.
Sterling Mayor Skip Lee and state Rep. Tom Demmer expressed admiration for Burke this afternoon.
“I’m stunned. Mayor Burke was an amazing man,” Lee said. “There was a lot of progress under him. First and foremost, he was about Dixon, but he worked very well with the other mayors.
“I never met someone who was more of a people person. He was charming, articulate and had that twinkle in his eye. He was like everyone’s grandpa," Lee said.
“He piloted Dixon through perhaps it’s toughest time in history. I can’t imagine being mayor at a worse time in a city’s history. The good he did was kind of forgotten in the controversy of the moment.
“Dixon has lost a true statesman, and an outstanding citizen."
Demmer, too, noted Burke's passion for his hometown.
"I had the chance to work with him on the board of the Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home. His enthusiasm for the city really showed in everything. He was the town's biggest fan," the Dixon Republican said.
"He was someone who always looked for new opportunities to embrace Dixon's history and community spirit. I respected and looked up to him."
Among others, Burke is survived by his wife, Lucy. Jones Funeral Home is handling arrangements, which will be finalized tonight.
SVM reporters Christopher Heimerman and Angel Sierra contributed to this report.