Ronald Cary Burger

Ronald Cary Burger

Former Lancaster native Ronald Cary Burger would have resisted the notion that he was a health care hero. But how else could you describe someone who spent months in New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, supporting injured and ill first responders in the grim aftermath of that national tragedy?

His work at ground zero on “the pile” was just one slice of a lifetime devoted to disaster preparedness and emergency response. Wherever he went during a 50-year career in public health, including 35 years with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he dutifully headed in the direction of trouble.

Time and again, Ron made a beeline to the scene of natural and human-made calamities — some 30 hurricanes, along with numerous floods and occasional earthquakes. According to family members and news reports, he was on site at the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Philadelphia in 1976. The Oklahoma City terrorist bombing in 1995. A smallpox vaccination campaign in Bangladesh. The Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980. The 2001 anthrax attacks. A Zika virus epidemic in Puerto Rico. A syphilis outbreak among young people in Georgia. The Flint, Michigan, water crisis. He became a million-mile traveler on Delta Airlines.

Ron’s preference was to prevent rather than respond to public health catastrophes. In fact, he took part in a pandemic planning task force back in the 1990s.

I lost track of Ron after we graduated from McCaskey High School many moons ago — 1966, if you’re counting — where he was a stalwart on the football and baseball teams. Throughout his life he proved to be a stalwart in every sense of the word. It was many moons later that I learned of his passionate devotion to public health.  

After graduating from Millersville University in 1970 with a degree in elementary and secondary education, Ron joined the Peace Corps and worked in Ghana, where he taught school and helped local communities deal with a deadly outbreak of cholera. That piqued his interest in public health. After returning to the United States and teaching science at Downingtown High School for a few years, he seized an opportunity to work for the CDC.

Ron did just about everything a lifer with the CDC can do, from helping to run a tuberculosis control program in New York City to dealing with the aftershocks of a school shooting in Georgia, just one month after the Columbine tragedy in Colorado in 1999. Ron’s children were students at that Georgia school, and they dodged the bullets that day.

Wherever he lived in the United States, Ron somehow found time to volunteer as an emergency medical technician and firefighter. He also donated his effort and energy to the Red Cross and made himself available to substitute-teach in local school systems. Active in public health organizations at all levels, he served as president of the National Association of Local Boards of Health.

Ron had the distinction of being named a distinguished alumnus of both his high school and college alma maters, McCaskey and Millersville. Jeremiah Miller, coordinator of the McCaskey Alumni Association, conducted an hourlong video interview with Ron in January of this year. “If there’s a problem and you can do something about it, you do it,” Ron said, and he lived it. He considered himself a teacher of public health, generously mentoring and counseling countless colleagues along the way.

Ron would tell you that he was just doing his job, a job he loved and a calling he pursued well after his retirement, serving as a Florida-based regional coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch program, which monitors the air for biological agents that could be used in a terrorist attack. He also volunteered for COVID-19 duty with the federal government’s National Disaster Medical System. Early in the days of this pandemic, he was in Atlanta, Georgia, monitoring cruise ship passengers who had returned from their trip and were in quarantine.

Characteristically, he was on assignment with the National Disaster Medical System in August, tapping into his inexhaustible supply of effort and energy, responding to the surging delta variant in Mississippi and helping to build a 75-unit field hospital when he died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 73. 

“We all reminded him it was time to retire,” recalls his sister, Lori Burger Daly, who lives in Landisville. “He would always say, ‘I will never retire. I love what I do.’ He would always sign off, whether on an email or phone call, with ‘Be safe and stay healthy.’ ”

Throughout his career, Ron Burger devoted himself to making this a better, brighter and safer world for us all. Much of his work was unseen and unsung, but all of it was vitally important to the preservation of healthy people on a healthy planet. His legacy of caring, of giving a damn about the world around him, will carry on in the work of others who follow in his path and will inspire us all.

I was looking forward to seeing Ron at our 55th McCaskey class reunion this weekend. His reassuring pandemic message — “We will get through this” — will continue to resonate. His light will continue to shine.

Jeff Forster is a native of Lancaster, a member of the J.P. McCaskey Class of 1966, and a proud former reporter for LNP | LancasterOnline.

 

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