When McHenry athletic director Barry Burmeister needs help with driving directions, he punches an address into his phone, looks for the ETA and considers the challenge accepted.
Karyn Burmeister knows her husband, while not wanting to endanger anyone or fracture laws, always wants to prove the computer wrong.
“Everything to him is a competition,” she said. “That is his entire life, every day, for him.”
Which just proves that Barry Burmeister, longtime teacher, coach and administrator at McHenry, chose the appropriate profession.
As a U.S. History teacher, Burmeister was able to enlighten young minds with knowledge. As a coach, his spirit could lift his athletes to compete every day. As athletic director for the past 10 years, coaches could feel his constant support.
Burmeister, who former McHenry High School District 156 superintendent Mike Roberts calls “the most honorable guy I know,” is retiring this summer. Burmeister, who started college as an accounting major before switching to education so he could coach, is stepping away from a school he considers family after 35 years.
“He’s honorable. That cuts everything,” said Roberts, who was McHenry principal when Burmeister was hired as AD. “Everything he does, every decision he has ever made, is what is best for the student-athlete. He was an outstanding teacher, and he always did what was best for the students.
“He’s never been one to want or need to be recognized. Every day he goes to work for the kids. A lot of people talk about that, what’s best for the kids, he lived that for a career.”
Burmeister, 57, worked as head coach in boys basketball and softball, and also was an assistant in those programs, as well as an assistant football coach during his career.
“When I got done (at Northern Illinois University in 1987), I had two offers,” Burmeister said. “One was at Sherrard and one was in McHenry. I feel like I picked the right one. I’ve had many chances to leave, I was out there looking and I’m glad I decided to stay here and work through things. There are a lot of things that change your course of life, but my family is my McHenry Warrior family. I wouldn’t go anyplace else.”
Barry and Karyn Burmeister married on Oct. 10, 2010, the second marriage for each of them. Karyn is chairman of McHenry’s Career and Technology Education Division and has taught accounting and business classes throughout her career. She says her husband’s passion for his school is what has made him a strong, well-liked educator.
“His passion for McHenry High School, the students, the athletes, the coaches, the entire system. He’s also very competitive,” she said. “That drive in himself to want to be the best, not just himself, but making others around him the best, really makes him what he is and good at what he does.”
THE POWER OF POSITIVITY
There may be no better example of Burmeister’s spirit than his reaction to dire news in January 2015. He had experienced pain throughout his body that led him to believe something was wrong.
Unfortunately, he was right.
After extensive tests at Northwestern Medicine and then the Mayo Clinic, Burmeister was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a rare cancer of the bone marrow that is terminal. Burmeister said there is little relief doctors can provide for his condition, which eventually will become leukemia.
A moment that defines Burmeister is well-etched both in his and Karyn’s minds.
The doctor hesitated to give Burmeister a prognosis, yet Burmeister was insistent. He smiled when the doctor eventually told him he likely had five years to live once symptoms had started.
“The doctor said, ‘Why is he smiling?’” Karyn said. “And I said, ‘This is another game for him and he’s going to beat it.’”
Another challenge accepted.
“I was already having some symptoms, so, I win,” Burmeister said. “Seven years, and I’m not slowing down at all. There’s days I don’t want to get up and stay in bed and I have little things that I don’t want other people to see. You just get up and keep going. If I stay in bed, the cancer wins.”
Burmeister told his and Karyn’s family, and a small circle of McHenry High School friends, about the diagnosis. Many did not find out until much later, if at all.
Sean Sterner, McHenry’s girls golf coach and a social studies teacher at the high school, was assigned Burmeister as his mentor when he came to the school 14 years ago. He said Burmeister rarely mentioned his illness.
“I wanted to be sure he knew how I felt about him and we had a good conversation,” Sterner said. “But he appreciates the fact that you just treat him like you always treated him. Didn’t make it something that changed your relationship with him.
“He has a great attitude about it. ... He’s so open with how he cares about you. Like, ‘I love you, man.’ Barry, as a personality, is going to joke around, give you one-liners. Then he’ll also tell you how much he loves and appreciates you. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Burmeister said the Friday night football home games are tough, being on his feet during the day then again at night. At home basketball games, he will often sit in a chair on the baseline near McHenry’s bench, still viewing games from a coach’s perspective.
Karyn Burmeister naturally struggled when they first learned of her husband’s diagnosis. She would burst into tears, and Barry would assure her, “We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to win.”
She says she is more at peace with it now.
“The funny thing is when he was diagnosed, he took the role of taking care of me because I was not handling it so well,” she said. “After a while it was that coach in him, ‘We are going to beat this. We are going to do this together. I’ve got this.’ I kind of equated it to his coaching days, rallying the team and ‘We’re going to do this.’ "
Barry Burmeister did not want others to worry.
“Everybody has a story, everybody has something in their life they wish they didn’t have,” he said. “This is my story. I’m not going to burden other people with my story.”
THE COACH’S NEIGHBOR
Burmeister grew up in Lanark and attended Eastland High School, where he played football, basketball and baseball, as many boys do in small towns.
He remembers there were always football games going on somewhere. In the winter, he and his friends would shovel snow off the court so they could play.
His father, Wayne, worked in construction and livestock. His mother, Pat, was the county bookkeeper. Burmeister considers himself fortunate that he lived on the same street as Jerry Jenkins, Eastland’s basketball coach.
Jenkins had a son near Burmeister in age, so he often attended practices with Jenkins and his son. While playing Nerf basketball in the Burmeisters’ living room, Burmeister often imitated Duane Ludwig and other Cougars more than he did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“Part of that time, I dressed up in a suit and acted like I was coaching on the sideline,” he said.
When Burmeister landed at McHenry, he assisted boys basketball coach Ken Ludwig in the final two years of his career. Those were formative years for Burmeister.
“I got to know Ken really, really well,” Burmeister said. “I had a really good time and learned how to put the time into coaching. We’d go to games, get something to eat and go to his house, put the film on and start working on the next game. I was single and I could do that.
“I was willing to learn. I went to the P.E. office in my free periods and play cribbage with Ken Ludwig and Ken Swanson. I used to sit there and play cribbage and soak in as much as I could about football and basketball and baseball and whatever else they talked about.”
Later in his career, Burmeister switched roles, sharing wisdom with young teachers and coaches like Rob Niemic, who taught in the social science department with Burmeister and worked as girls head basketball coach for eight seasons.
“They use the words ‘street smart,’ full of knowledge,” Niemic said. “There’s not too much he doesn’t know or hasn’t experienced. It’s impressive, he’s been around 35 years and seen it all, different types of athletes and students.
“He’s just so easy to be liked. That’s pretty powerful. In the coaching world you get some people and you’re like, ‘I don’t really like that guy.’ Nobody’s ever said that about Barry. I can’t say the same for myself. That’s just impressive.”
Burmeister liked the times when the classroom door closed and he and the students could just focus on learning together.
“I learned as much from them as they did from me,” he said. “I wanted them to enjoy being in the classroom and everything else. The part I liked best was when I got to talk to the kids and tell stories.”
As for coaching, it gave Burmeister a chance to see students in a different light. He relishes the relationships he made through coaching.
“I go to weddings of former players,” he said. “I think I have every single player still in my phone. I still reach out and text them as much as I can.”
Things will seem different at McHenry when classes start up again in August.
Joel Beard will be occupying the AD’s office and Burmeister, for the first time since the fall of 1987, will not be in the building.
Burmeister lives in Lake in the Hills, not far away, and likely will attend some sporting events. But it will not be the same as being able to drop into his office.
“He’s one of those people if you have something that’s on your mind or you needed help with, a lot of times he’s the first guy you go to,” Niemic said. “That’s really powerful to have in a school district. When you’re younger, even when you get older, it’s always good to hear a second opinion.
“He’s a grinder. He puts in his whole career, he’s always present. One of those guys who literally is there all the time. He’s probably the most supportive guy in our district, not just as a coach, but as a person.”
Sterner expressed similar sentiments.
“As AD, he cares about me as a person more than he cares about me as a coach or a teacher,” Sterner said. “When you know someone genuinely values who you are, you’ll do anything for that guy. That’s kind of what Barry brings to the table. He’s passionate, he’s smart, but he just cares. He always consider McHenry to be an extension of his family. That’s how he approaches things.”
Burmeister will have some days when his cancer will make things rough on him. It will just be another competition in which he can come out on top.
“When this first happened, we have our wedding picture in a frame that reads, ‘Another Day,’” he said. “So we see that every day we get up and every day is a great day. The reason the rearview mirror is smaller than your windshield is because you want to look forward. Just keep going forward every day.”