‘Pas­sion­ate About Help­ing Peo­ple’

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro Week - By Pa­tri­cia Sul­li­van

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.

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