Retired police chief John Burley worked tirelessly for veterans


When John "Jack" Burley saw Bellingham Bay for the first time in the late '40s, he knew he had found a home.

Burley, who went on to become the city's police chief and a major figure in the veterans' community, moved to Bellingham after his tenure with the Merchant Marine because a brother lived here.

"When he came down the Boulevard on the bus he told himself, 'I'm going to live here until I die,' and that's what he did," said his wife of 63 years, Vivian.

Burley died Jan. 17 at the age of 85. Along with his wife, he is survived by two children, six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His funeral was held Friday, Jan. 25, followed by burial with military honors at Bayview Cemetery.

A friendly, good-looking man, Burley reminded some people of the actor Robert Mitchum, while others thought he resembled Dean Martin.

Burley gravitated to leadership positions over the years, serving as police chief from 1973 to 1976, leading several community groups and organizing events to honor veterans.

"He wasn't just at them, he coordinated them," said Whatcom County Councilman Pete Kremen, who, as a state lawmaker and county executive, often attended ceremonies with Burley. "Many of the veteran recognition events wouldn't have happened without him."

Burley was born in Corvallis, Ore. When his father died when he was 3, Burley stayed with his mother and three siblings while two older brothers moved to Oklahoma to live with kin. The family later moved to Tacoma, where Burley went to school and contracted tuberculosis when he was 12.

"He had a pretty rough bringing up," Vivian said.

Burley was a teen-ager when he served in the Merchant Marine during World War II, moving troops, ammo and other supplies, mostly in the South Pacific.

"I was 17 when I saw my first battle," he once recounted. "My commander told us the first time we saw battle that we needed to put what we saw behind us. You never forget, but you learn to keep on with life."

Burley worked for the Bellingham Police Department for 25 years, retiring in 1976. As chief, he hired several of the earliest women officers in the department and started an "officer friendly" program to promote good relations with the community.

"That was cutting edge back in the early '70s," said Jack Hanson, a retired lieutenant with the department.

At the same time, Burley backed his officers, Hanson said. Burley participated in the first use of the department's tactical squad during a 1972 political protest in Fairhaven, Hanson said, and as chief he let officers decide whether to engage in high-speed pursuits, rather than prohibit them outright.

"He was upfront; he was square," Hanson said. "I just loved working for him."

Three years after retiring, Burley challenged Mayor Ken Hertz in the 1979 election, but lost by a wide margin. Keeping on with his life, Burley stayed active in the Elks and Masons, raised money for the American Cancer Society and helped organize Bellingham's annual Blossomtime Parade that later became the Ski to Sea Grand Parade.

But it's his decades of volunteer work on behalf of veterans that many people will long remember. As a president of American Merchant Marine Veterans and a member of Albert J. Hamilton American Legion Post 7, Burley helped organized events to mark Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Pearl Harbor Day, Flag Day and Armed Forces Day, and served in honor guards whenever veterans died.

"He had something in him; he just loved the United States," Vivian said. "He was sincere about it."

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or

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