Maybe it's his boyhood growing up in a succession of mining camps like Cripple Creek, Colo., where his Irish immigrant parents met and married.
"You grew up there by learning," he explains, "like not straddling an axe handle when chopping wood."
Running water? "Use the pump handle. Hot water? From the tea kettle on the wood stove."
He also remembers that he and his brother went to Sunday school in any town the family moved to "Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian ... My mother, a cradle Catholic, was far ahead of the ecumenical curve."
Or maybe it's his genuine love of people learned as the family moved from camp to camp and later developed as he worked in several professions.
"Often where I worked there were happy personality matches that enabled us to grow together."
He came to the Stanislaus educational scene 40 years ago to serve under county Superintendent Fred C. Beyer, retiring as assistant superintendent of schools in 1975.
"It was a great place to work, with cooperative school superintendents used to teamwork. But the '70s and '80s were years of wrenching changes. All those title programs to digest, and ESL (English as a Second Language), civil unrest, Vietnam, (state school Superintendent Bill) Honig's reforms, Howard Jarvis' Proposition 13, collective bargaining. There seemed to be no let-up."
His experiences prompted Frank Burke to write letters to the editor of The Bee. Thoughtful letters, well received for their clear and respectful tone. Not long letters, but well-researched ones, if need be, and always ones coming from years of experience.
He says they reflect his "working class boyhood." The reader says they reflect his elegance of thought and love of humanity. Long may he keep on writing.
Frank Burke turned 100 on Tuesday.
Burke looks fondly on his participation in organizations such as the Exchange Club, the local Association of School Administrators and the local Retired Teachers group. Friendships in these groups help fill an emotional gap, he says, since the death of his wife, Dorothy, nine years ago.
He still drives. "Two cars in the garage, an '85 Mercury and a 1970 Volvo. When one needs work, I have the other."
He "bangs out" his letters on an IBM Selectric. He and his Selectric have contributed letters to The Bee longer than any other current writer.
All have been edited, but most not very much. He says he wishes he'd had Opinions Page Editor Judy Sly in one of his English classes.
Topics for his most recent letters have included "Hard to test on an empty stomach" (Jan. 9); "Protect your barn door" (March 7) and "Mitt Romney's budget ignores the poor, middle class" (June 3).
Burke says he admires teachers for what they do "uncomplainingly. Sixty-two percent of our children live in poverty. So many have two strikes, maybe three, on them when they're born so they're behind at the start.
"I want to do a little study here that finds out what teachers are doing to keep kids in school and then publish it, put it on the radio, recognize the good that is going on and the people who are doing it.
"Not just look at test scores."
Frank Burke's birthday has been roundly celebrated by family (Dorothy and he had eight children), friends ("Never knew I had so many. It's been a shock"), and professional organizations.
The days move on, even though "I do hate doing the damned housework ..."
There's mass every morning at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church. Burke says he can walk to the gas station and grocery store if need be.
Mass every morning?
"I want to cover all my bases," he says, "in case God pulls a quick test on me."
Brooks, a retired educator, can be reached at columns@modbee.
LETTERS FROM BURKE
Since the early 1990s, The Bee has published more than 100 of Frank Burke's letters to the editor. Here are some excerpts:
'Congress privatized the Post Office when stamps were 3 cents. Who needs a repeat?'
June 3, 2011, responding to a plan to privatize Medicare
'Proposition 1A (sales tax) bothers me. It extends the sales tax increase. It's a regressive tax that hits the working poor hardest. It's an STP tax: Soak the Poor.'
April 22, 2009
'The personal rancor between congressional members over President (Bill) Clinton's impeachment may do more damage to the affairs of our country than the process itself. People who hate one another won't work together and hatred has a long shelf life.'
Dec. 27, 1998