Daniel B. Burke, Executive at Capital Cities/ABC, Dies at 82

Daniel B. Burke

Longtime Cap Cities executive presided over the surprise 1986 acquisition of ABC.

NEW YORK – Daniel B. Burke, who served as president and CEO of Capital Cities/ABC, died this morning at his home in Rye, New York. He was 82.

Burke, the father of NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, spent more than three decades at Cap Cities, joining the company in 1961 and retiring in 1994 as president and CEO.

Burke’s rise at Cap Cities began quickly after Tom Murphy, the former head of the company, recruited him as general manager of WTEN in Albany. Burke became vp and director of Capital Cities in 1967, spent three years running the publishing division (1969-72) and was named COO in 1972.

Then in 1986, the company went from essentially a regional operator to a national media conglomerate virtually over night with the surprise acquisition of ABC. At the time, it was the largest non-oil merger in business history. In 1996, Capital Cities/ABC was sold to The Walt Disney Company.   

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“Dan was a brilliant executive and my business partner for 33 years,” Murphy, Burke’s longtime business partner and retired CEO of Capital Cities/ABC, said in a statement. “He was also a friend whose intelligence and integrity greatly inspired those around him. Dan shaped the culture of the company, with an emphasis on accountability, directness, irreverence and community service. He was serious and committed, with a wicked sense of humor that made every day more fun. The world is a better place for all he contributed."

"He was one of the toughest, fairest and most honorable men I've dealt with," veteran ABC News anchor Ted Koppel wrote in an e-mail message.

Added Bob Iger, president and CEO, The Walt Disney Company, in a statement: “A gifted executive and natural teacher, and a man with a strong sense of right and wrong, Dan Burke led by example. He stood for integrity and directness in business, and encouraged a balance in work and family life and involvement in one’s community. Dan had a significant impact on me and all those he touched, and for that I will always be grateful.”

David Westin, former president of ABC News, called Burke a "great leader" and an "extraordinary man." Burke hired Westin as general counsel at Cap Cities/ABC in 1991. 

"I used to schedule time with him and invariably I’d be in his office for an hour-and-a-half talking about everything," recalled Westin. "And I’d come out feeling so good about him, about the company, about my role. He had an amazing charisma. He could make you feel so good about yourself in part because he always conveyed a sense that he completely trusted you, that he had put you in the position because he believed you could do the job well."

Burke's portrait still hangs in the lobby of ABC's Manhattan headquarters at 77 West 66th Street.

He remained busy after his retirement in 1994. He started a minor league baseball franchise, the Sea Dogs, in Portland, Maine. And he served as a director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and chairman emeritus of New York Presbyterian Hospital (now Columbia Presbyterian). In 1990, he was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to the Hungarian-American Enterprise Fund, which was established to promote the private sector in Hungary. He was on the board of trustees at University of Vermont, his alma mater. He also served on the doards of the American Woman’s Economic Development Corporation, The National Urban League, Cities in Schools, Morgan Stanley Group, Inc., Consolidated Rail Corporation, Rohm and Haas, Darden Restaurants and The Washington Post Company.

Burke was born in Albany on Feb. 4, 1929, the third in a family of four children whose father worked for New York Life Insurance. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1950, he joined the Army and served eight months in Korea as a First Lieutenant and Mortar Platoon Leader. He left the Army in 9153, and enrolled at Harvard Business School where he earned an MBA in 1995. 

In addition to his son Steve, Burke is survived by his wife of 54 years, Harriet “Bunny” Burke; three other children Frank Burke, Sally McNamara and Bill Burke; and fourteen grandchildren.

A visitation service will be held at the Graham Funeral Home, in Rye on Sunday, Oct. 30. The funeral service will take place at St. Martha Church in Kennebunk, Maine on Tuesday, Nov. 1.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Maine Medical Center, The Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the Naomie Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University Medical Center.

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