Marla Rae (Kerwin) Burke


image of Marla Rae Burke

Marla Rae Burke

Marla Rae (Kerwin) Burke was born with a debilitating form of cerebral palsy, which affected her for all of her 70 years. She steadfastly refused to let it stop her from enjoying a loving life full of fun, relationships and adventure. Despite limited speaking ability, she loved it when those close to her gave her a hard time – her chance to give it right back, often with a few choice words or by sticking out her tongue. But Marla could also charm your socks off. The author of a 1978 newspaper article about Marla’s ability to paint pictures despite her limitations wrote, “When she struggles to speak, her arms and legs twist in the effort for her mind to control her body. But her eyes dance with merriment when she greets a visitor in a twinkling welcome.” She loved to go out dancing to “old-school twang” country music, twirling around in her chin-controlled power wheelchair. And she loved going to see the Mariners.

Marla was born in 1953 in West Seattle, the oldest of three children of Fred and Jean Kerwin, a working-class couple, along with brothers Carey and Bradley. When Fred and Jean had to work late, Fred’s parents Chuck and Arvena would often pick Marla up from school and take her to their home. Marla developed a close and loving relationship with her grandmother, Arvena Kerwin (“Amma Eenie” for “Grandma Veenie”) and her family. Several times the extended family went on camping trips. Marla had expressed a desire to go swimming, and during one such outing at Lake Steilacoom, her brothers and uncles pushed Marla in her wheelchair to the end of the dock. With her Uncle Russ in the water, the others “took her out of the wheelchair and threw her off the dock, and I was there to catch her,” said Russ Kerwin. “She just loved that.”

In the late 1970s, while she was a resident at the United Cerebral Palsy Residence just off I-5 in what’s now Shoreline, Marvin Soderquist, a physical therapist at the center, built her a powered wheelchair using “lots of nuts and bolts and switches and some surplus airplane parts,” reported the Seattle Times. It allowed Marla to use her chin – she had limited control over her arms and legs – to drive the chair. She would sometimes go out for adventures after hours, riding wheelchair-accessible buses to go shopping or carouse at local watering holes. After one of those sojourns, Dan Burke, a UCP care worker who had come to know Marla, was putting her to bed. “She kind of locked her arms around my neck and wouldn’t let go,” Dan said. In the preceding years, Marla had had “more than a few boyfriends, although I’m not sure all of them realized they were in a relationship with her,” he said.

Marla and Dan were married at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in West Seattle on Feb. 20, 1982. It was reciprocal relationship – Dan, who had worked at other care facilities, needed love and someone to care for, and Marla needed love and someone to build things to help her function as independently as possible. “The first thing I built was a box that she could put her hairdryer in and turn it on. After that I taught myself to build a lot of things for her,” Dan said. He joked that “she kept me around as long as I kept building things for her.” However, in all seriousness, “she was every bit a loving and caring wife,” Dan said. In the late 1980s, indulging Marla’s love of country music, they engaged in their biggest travel adventure together — riding the Amtrak train (with a few harrowing logistical challenges) with Amma Eenie to Nashville.

“Dan was a godsend to Marla,” Russ Kerwin said. “When I think about Marla and Dan, I marvel at the fact that they were able to need each other, have a loving relationship, and wound up spending more than 40 years together. It’s just a very remarkable story.”

A decade ago, Marla’s advancing CP resulted in a loss of function for her epiglottis, affecting her ability to eat and breathe. Given the choice between losing her speech or her ability to eat solid food, she chose to continue enjoying eating. For the past 10 years, a permanent tracheostomy meant she had to breathe through a tube in her neck, though she could communicate through a computer voice program — and her ever-expressive face. Marla and Dan continued attending Mariners games and going out on the town. Marla also greatly enjoyed her 70th birthday party, thrown by her family in September 2023 in Issaquah.

Marla died at home on April 19, 2024, “fighting valiantly” after a brief illness. She is survived by her loving husband Dan and her “Baby Brother” Bradley. She was predeceased by her parents Fred and Jean Kerwin, her brother Carey, and her Amma Eenie.

A graveside memorial service is planned on Friday, May 31, 2024, at 2:30 p.m. at Holyrood Cemetery, 205 N.E. 205th St., Shoreline. Reception to follow.

A Celebration of Life is planned on Sunday, June 9, at 1 p.m. at the home of Russ and Nancy Kerwin, 22403 53rd Ave. S.E., Bothell.

2 Responses to “Marla Rae (Kerwin) Burke”

  • Joann Gough says:

    It was a pleasure to know you. You and Dan were an inspiration to all. RIP Marla

  • Cristi Papen says:

    Marla, your sassy demeanor and fun attitude are missed! I’ve seen that twinkle in your eye many times and it made me smile EVERY time! The Burke family was blessed by your presence. ❤️

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