The Million-Dollar Enigma

The only known photo of Lu Burke, taken at the Friendly’s in Southbury in 2002 by Mary Norris, one of Burke’s closest colleagues at The New Yorker.

The only known photo of Lu Burke, taken at the Friendly’s in Southbury in 2002 by Mary Norris, one of Burke’s closest colleagues at The New Yorker.

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Who was Lu Burke, and why did she leave more than a million dollars to the Southbury Public Library. Her trail leaves far more questions than answers.

When Lu Burke, a resident at Pomperaug Woods retirement community, died at age 90 in October 2010, the event barely registered in Southbury. This was not unusual, of course. As the home to Pomperaug Woods, as well as Heritage Village and The Watermark at East Hill, Southbury counts thousands of older residents among its ranks, including many in their 80s and 90s who came to town late in life. The local obituary pages are crowded with names of men and women whose lives were largely lived elsewhere.

Burke herself moved to Southbury in the late 1990s—first to Heritage Village and then, in 2004, to Pomperaug Woods—after having lived and worked as an editor most of her life in New York City, most notably at The New Yorker. She never married and brought few possessions with her other than a few boxes of old books, which she described to a Pomperaug Woods staff member as “my friends.”

When she got to Southbury, she bought a used 1990 Honda Civic, which she liked to say was “Chianti red,” pronouncing it like Hannibal Lecter, and took it on short jaunts around town. Mostly, however, she lived a quiet, almost hermetic existence in those last years at Pomperaug Woods, where “New England”-style apartments are surrounded by 22 wooded acres. There’s a store, hair salon, art studio, performing arts center, even game rooms on the premises, but Burke seldom availed herself of these amenities. She made few friends or even acquaintances there, and never took her meals in the dining room with other residents, preferring to carry her dinner back to her apartment in a bag.

And there the story would end, in the silence of the surrounding countryside, were it not for something extraordinary that happened in the wake of Lu Burke’s passing.

Though she had no direct next of kin at her death, Burke named a beneficiary in her will. This gesture was entirely in keeping with her love of books but, still, town residents were taken aback by the news that a veritable stranger in their midst had left her entire estate, worth $1,083,669.31, to the Southbury Public Library. It was the largest bequest the library, in all its incarnations over more than a century, had ever received. Adding to the mystery was the distinct possibility that Burke may never even have visited the library. She had no active library card on file and no one on the staff recalls for certain ever seeing her there.  

Head Librarian Shirley Thorson was blindsided, happily, by the news. “We had no inkling whatsoever,” says Thorson. “The probate court in Southbury notified us of a bequest from Lu Burke but no amount was named and we didn’t hear anything else for more than a year. Then in December [2011], right around the holidays, the attorney handling the estate called and told us the amount over the phone. We were overwhelmed.”

After much discussion, many library board meetings and some input from the community, it was decided that the most appropriate way to honor the gift was to name a part of the library after this great and unexpected benefactor.

“She was a private person but was clearly dedicated to words,” says Thorson.

The Million-Dollar Enigma

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