‘Passionate About Helping People’
For 40 years, when Iowans needed help replacing lost passports, speeding up Farmers Home Administration loans or straightening out a problem with a Social Security check, they called Betty M. Burger.
Burger, chief caseworker for Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) for the past 32 years and for two other members of Congress before that, would cheerfully make the calls, sort through paperwork and guide her fellow Iowans to the right person, office or solution.
“I’ve always said I have the best job in the office because I get paid to help people,” she told her family early in her career. “You can’t get tired of doing that.”
Congressional staffers rarely spend their full careers on the Hill anymore, but the well-dressed 86year-old made the daily commute between Springfield and downtown Washington until she became ill with cancer about three months ago. She died April 14 at Capital Hospice in Arlington County.
By her own estimate, she handled more than 30,000 constituent requests during her career. And “no one knew how to cut through red tape more swiftly and surely,” Grassley said in a Senate floor tribute to her.
“Betty was a masterful detective the way she tracked down disability claims and benefit errors at the Social Security Administration. She decoded the maze of paperwork at the Veterans Affairs Department and navigated byzantine immigration rules for constituents struggling with citizenship, employment status and deportation issues.”
So deep was her expertise that colleagues joked that she had a “million-dollar Rolodex,” said grandson Ben Burger. “She said, ‘It might have been that once, but it’s now about a $20 Rolodex because I’ve outlived so many people.’ ”
Her skill came from experience rather than classrooms because the Attica, Iowa, native did not attend college. She grew up in Knoxville, Iowa, and was a legal secretary until moving to Fairfield, Iowa, in 1955. There, she worked for Iowa State Bank and Trust.
A lifelong Republican, she was chairwoman of her county’s Republican Central Committee in 1962. After moving to Springfield in 1967, she became an alternate delegate to the 1969 convention of the National Federation of Republican Women.
She worked for two House members — Fred D. Schwengel (R-Iowa) from 1967 to 1972 and then two years with Robert P. Hanrahan (R-Ill.) — before joining Grassley’s staff.
She remained fiercely loyal to Iowa. She and her husband, John H. Burger Sr., rooted for Iowa college teams and had a Hawkeyes license plate holder on their car. Mrs. Burger visited Iowa at least once a year, making a circuit of Fairfield, Knoxville and Iowa City to visit relatives. Her husband died in 2004; her survivors include four children, William H. Burger of Iowa City, Barbara Hirschler of Fairfield, Carol Winborn of Fairfax Station and Terri Burney of Burke; two sisters; a brother; 11 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
Dedicated to her grandchildren, Burger would turn up in the bleachers at sporting events in tasteful, matching outfits. Once, when another fan urged his child to stop her grandson’s scoring at a basketball game, Burger turned to her family and warned, “That guy’s going to get the back of my purse.”
One of her many special interests was in helping Iowans who were nominated for the military service academies.
“We always had a great group of academy nominees, as far as Betty was concerned,” Grassley said. “These young high school kids and their parents had several conversations with Betty as they maneuvered through the nomination process. They were an inspiration to her, and she knew with good, young people in her academies, such as the ones she helped nominate, our country from a national security standpoint would be left in good hands.”
Ken Cunningham, Grassley’s former chief of staff who worked with Burger for 26 years, said she was a friendly, tactful and always well-coiffed leader of constituent services who coordinated Washington and Iowa caseworkers and discussed issues with the legislative or policy staff.
“From time to time, she had some pretty strong opinions about the issues of the day, but she was never emotional about it. She’d call it the way she’d see it,” Cunningham said. “In all the years I’ve been in Washington, some people seem to have an ego and some people have true servant hearts. She always saw herself as a servant of people and was always passionate about helping people.”
Betty M. Burger, 86, worked on Capitol Hill for her entire career, handling thousands of requests for help from Iowa constituents.