Rhonda Hetrick Burke Always Wanted to be a Successful Writer

Rhonda Hetrick Burke
Rhonda Hetrick Burke

By Sue Moore

“My dad always told me, ‘don’t ever count on someone else, especially a man, to take care of you, the only one you can count on is yourself, “ Rhonda Hetrick Burke emphasized.

With that in mind, after graduating from Vicksburg Community High School in 1981, she enlisted in the Navy to see the world and pursue her goal of becoming a journalist. After boot camp she spent a little over two years in Japan working in the operations department and eventually the public affairs office.

“I was fortunate that my commanding officer took an interest in my career and helped me get started,” she said. “As a young journalist I was interviewing admirals and other dignitaries and attending international events.”

Then it was off to sea duty as a journalist on the USS Acadia, a non-combatant repair ship in San Diego. Following that assignment, in which she saw most of the Far East, she was assigned to the Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Ill., working in the public affairs office.

In the summer of 1991, Hetrick Burke left active duty to join the reserves and take a civilian job to continue her career as a journalist, this time as the managing editor at Lakeland Newspapers in Grayslake, Ill. For eight years she toiled as a journalist in the weekly newspaper world, shocked at how little editors get paid, she recounts.

This group of small-town newspapers was owned by “Senior,” who flippantly told her one day, “You’ll never make it in this career,” when she needed two hours off to bring her daughters home from school because they had the chicken pox. “I learned a lot from him, once I figured out where he was coming from as my employer,” she said, “He emphasized how important it is to find the unique thing about our each of the towns we covered and to report it. It is something a journalist can do that no one else does. We are keeping the record of the community he always told me.”

Deciding to freelance, Hetrick-Burke struck out on her own in 1999 to become a stringer for the Chicago Tribune writing obituaries, feature stories, doing the police beat and covering local government in the towns north of Chicago that are still in the Tribune’s circulation area.

Still feeling the wanderlust, she was recalled to active duty in the Navy in 2000 as a Chief Petty Officer and was detached to Bahrain from 2005 to 2007 where she started a live radio station as part of the communications to ships in the area. Under her command the staff built a radio station out of stuff scrounged from the bases where radio stations had been disestablished and she oversaw a morning show for the troops.

After 29-plus years in the Navy, the Senior Chief Petty Officer decided to retire from active duty in 2010. But knowing the wisdom of her dad, she wasn’t going to stop working. She applied and was selected for a job as public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in Chicago. Her office serves a 12-state Midwest region. DOL manages OSHA, Wage and Hour inspections, and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, among other responsibilities. As such, Hetrick-Burke speaks about the mission of the agency with a passion. The Department of Labor investigates violations in the workplace and seeks to maintain the culture of safety that is needed to protect the working public.

In her free time, she volunteers as a board member for Great Lakes Naval Museum Foundation, at Naval Station Great Lakes, the Navy’s only boot camp, which is located about 45 minutes north of Chicago. She also enjoys gardening and running and completed the Chicago Marathon in 2009.

“I left Vicksburg as a shy teenager, never feeling like I fit in,” Hetrick-Burke said. “I’ve seen and done so many different things because of my jobs and have lived in and visited many countries.

While serving in the Navy Hetrick Burke earned a Bachelor’s degree in work force education from Southern Illinois University and a Masters’ degree in Human Resources from Webster University. Today, she lives in Antioch, Ill., with her husband, Dustan and 16-year-old daughter Delaney. She also has three grown daughters, Amelia Vinzant, Samantha Burke and Mandy Chavez and a son-in-law Levi Chavez.

“Getting my start as a school reporter for the Commercial-Express was important because I knew that someone in my life was taking an interest in me,” she said.

“Even though I was shy, asking other people questions gave me a reason to start a conversation and keep talking. Interviewing people and telling their unique stories is an important responsibility. Journalists record the history of the world and whether it is for a high school paper, the Chicago Tribune or in the middle of a combat zone, each person’s story stays with you and records their mark on this world.”

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