Merritt "Sam" Burke III, outdoorsman, prosecutor, defender

June 20, 2015

Merritt "Sam" Burke III  of Lewes passed away Thursday, June 18, 2015, peacefully at home on Lewes Beach with his family at his side. He was born in Milford, Oct. 28, 1943, son of the late Merritt Burke Jr. and Katherine Pfrommer Burke. A glimpse of his life at the early stages of his career is reprinted below from an article written by Tammy Hopkins Brittingham and published in the Delaware State News Monday, Aug. 29, 1977, when Sam was 34.

After working for several years as a prosecutor, known to many as "the attorney general below the canal," Sam then continued his career practicing criminal law with Brown, Shields and Chasnoff. In the early 1990s he resumed his career with the state as a public defender where he practiced law until he retired to care for his late wife, Patty.

Sam was an outdoorsman at heart, who especially enjoyed spending time at Broadkill Beach hunting with and teaching his family and friends about nature. He also enjoyed teaching the lessons of life to anyone who would listen. No task was ever too difficult for Sam. One of his favorite quotes was "work is the rehabilitation of mankind." When not on Lewes or Broadkill Beach he would be found working on his farm at Fort Saulsbury, tending to his many animals, especially his champion Kiko goats.

Sam also enjoyed traveling with his dear friend Trish, whether it be a drive in the country or a trip around the world. Trish's companionship really put the wind back in Sam's sails.

In addition to his parents, he was predeceased by his wife, Patricia Meade Thompson Burke, "Patty," Oct. 5, 2012.

In addition to his dear friend Trish, he is survived by four sons: Merritt Burke IV and his wife Linda of Milton, Laurence Layton Burke of Broadkill Beach, Thompson Asbury Burke and his wife Lauren of Greenwood, and Christopher Meade Burke of Broadkill Beach. He is also survived by six grandchildren; two sisters: Kannie Woods and husband Bill of Oxford, Md., and Deborah Bower Burke of Boston, Mass.; his loving dog Bess and five grand dogs, and special friend Buckshot.

Memorial Services for Mr. Burke will be held Thursday, June 25,  at 11 a.m., at St. George's Episcopal Chapel, 20274 Beaver Dam Road, Route 23, Harbeson,  where friends may visit one hour prior to services.

Friends may also visit Wednesday, June 24, from 6 until 8 p.m., at Parsell Funeral Homes & Crematorium, Atkins-Lodge Chapel, 16961 Kings Highway, Lewes.

Burial will be private at All Saints' Cemetery, Angola.

In lieu of flowers contributions are suggested to the Civil War Land Trust, 1156 15th Street NW, Suite 900, Washington, D.C. 20005.

Please visit Mr. Burke's Life Memorial Webpage and sign the online guest book at


The following article about Mr. Burke, from the Aug. 29, 1977 edition of the Delaware State News, is reprinted with permission from Delaware State News.


Sam Burke has a style all his own

By Tammy Brittingham, Staff Writer

GEORGETOWN—It's difficult to characterize a man like Merritt (Sam) Burke III.

The Sussex County deputy attorney general has many faces and none of them suit the proverbial "successful young attorney" stereotype.

Burke's tweed suits and fashionable ties blend well with the understated decor of his Sussex courthouse office. His surroundings are the mark of success.

But his station in life does not dictate to Burke. A patched naugahyde couch purchased by a friend for five dollars has a prominent spot in his spacious office. And just outside, in the parking spot reserved for the attorney general's staff, is a beat-up blue pickup truck whose cab is cluttered with paper and rope, all sorts of odds and ends and a mug half-full of very cold coffee.

Burke is an easygoing guy. He smiles frequently and provides his friends with plenty of laughs when he recalls one of the many amusing anecdotes he has collected over the years.

But even though every courthouse employee knows him as Sam, Burke con-siders himself "a very low-profile guy."

"I'm a very private person," he says, bringing the tips of his tobacco-stained fingers together to form an arch.

"It's not that I don't like people. I always have time for my friends. But for instance, when I'm sitting on the beach reading a book I don't want someone coming up to me and starting an idle conversation," he says.

At 34 his hair is showing signs of gray. But his tan weatherbeaten face is ageless.

There are wrinkles, especially around his eyes. But they are evidence of a man who has spent much of his time outdoors, squinting against the glare of the sun.

"I enjoy living," Burke says, tugging at a bushy auburn moustache, his most noticeable trademark. "I like to read, go hunting every single day of the season, sail, fish, sit on the beach. Today I might go duck-hunting, tomorrow I might jog racehorses. I like to try different things."

His favorite author is Ernest Hemingway, whose outdoorsy down-to-earth characters he is not unlike.

"I'm very close to pigs and cows and chickens," he says solemnly to emphasize the down-home aspect of his personality he is most proud of.

Burke, who was born in Milford, is a Sussex native, though he was raised in Newark. "I'm very proud to be a Sussex countain," he says.

After high school, Burke earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture from the University of Delaware.

Following a stint in the army, he returned to academia at the University of Tennessee where he studied law.

In 1972, he joined the attorney general's office in Wilmington, then transferred to Sussex after spending a week in Georgetown where, Burke said, he was temporarily assigned to clear a backlog of cases.

He met his wife Patty and was glad, he recalls, to agree to her request that they live in lower Delaware.

The prosecutor, whose courtroom dramatics sometimes include pounding the podium and shouting, considers himself a family man.

Burke speaks fondly of his three-year-old namesake and vividly recalls his wife's 22 hours of labor that preceded the child's birth.

"Being a parent is an awesome responsibility," he says. "Oh, I thought I knew that before we had Merritt...but I see all kinds of young guys in court for burglary, robbery...going off to prison, and I wonder what went wrong, what did their parents do? Then I think about my son."

His work is draining, he admits, but adds he enjoys it.

"Sure I will probably go into private practice someday, but that is a tough decision to make," he says.

So far, his life pleases him.

"You know something, I wouldn't change it, I wouldn't do a single thing differently, if I had it to do all over again," he says leaning back, his arms folded behind his neck. "I'm very happy."


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