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City workers remember Jeff JB Burkhardt
Lori Burkhardt, center, is consoled by family members in front of her late husband’s city truck that he drove as city workers gathered Friday to celebrate the life of municipal refuse collector Jeff “JB” Burkhardt. - photo by HIME ROMERO
Ryan Reis knows a “good man” when he meets one.

As a 7-year-old Ryan would patiently wait for Jeff “JB” Burkhardt to make his rounds in what was without a doubt the cleanest refuse collection truck in the city’s fleet.

When he saw Burkhardt coming down the street he’d hop on his bicycle and follow the truck until it reached his house. Once there, Burkhardt would get out of his truck and chat with Ryan. He’d also explain how he did his job and let Ryan get a close look inside the truck.

On weeks when Burkhardt was off he’d catch up with the substitute driver and ask him where JB was. After it was explained that he was off that week Ryan would watch the substitute driver operate the automatic arm and dump his family’s Toters and let the driver know “that isn’t the way that JB does it.”

Ryan is now 14 and a student at Sierra High.

On Friday, he was presented with a work shirt with JB’s initials on it. It was a request Ryan made so he could always remember a good man whose heart was bigger than the garbage truck he drove.

Burkhardt was part of a tight-knit family in addition to his beloved wife Lori and blood kin. That tight-knit family - the Manteca refuse crew and the rest of the municipal work force - stopped to celebrate the life of the good man they lost a week earlier at age 46. As they shared stories of a man who was more a brother than simply a fellow worker, Burkhardt’s truck was parked outside. It was shiny and clean - just as he kept it.

They noted how he’d clean it as required at the end of his shift on the wash rack but then he’d go the extra step using Armor All inside the cab and the wheels. He’d do it again in the morning before going out on his route.

“He kept it so clean you couldn’t find a piece of paper or anything on it,” one of the crew said. “It looked like it was just driven off the showroom floor.”

Another crew member marveled that he must be driving God nuts up in heaven “polishing the Pearly Gates” and applying Amor All to the harps.

Along his route he’d never let a piece of garbage or paper behind. He’d always get out and retrieve anything he saw amiss. After all, this was his city and the people he served were his neighbors.

The same tender loving care he took with his was job guided his contacts with people he’d meet even if for a fleeting second in a line at the convenience store or the DMV. He made people feel special by taking the time to be genuinely pleasant.

The loss of a good man is hard. As one of his friends said Friday, you always think that there will be another chance to say something to someone or do something but you never know what awaits you in life.

Burkhardt never let an opportunity pass by to make someone else feel better.

The sea of City of Manteca family members wearing his radio call numbers “626” on Friday were all touched by the privilege they had of working with Burkhardt from fellow refuse workers to police officers - to mechanic - to receptionists to department heads.

Such a loss is hard. Other city workers - including department heads - offered to show up the next work day and handle the jobs of the refuse crew. But not a day passed that the crew didn’t show up.

After all, it is what Burkhardt would do.

And it is what virtually every city worker does.

Perhaps why the loss is so hard is Burkhardt in a way represented all of what they do. He loved his family. He loved his fellow workers that had the privilege of working with him the past seven years. He loved friends. He loved Manteca. He loved people. And he took pride in what he did.

Fellow crew member Ron Tilton noted that Burkhardt always wanted to do his job the best he could.

It is the unwritten creed of almost every man and woman who wears the red, white, and blue city seal.  The success of a city and strong community take everyone working together and pulling for each other whether they are protecting the public, treating wastewater or collecting garbage.

There is real worth in work, people, and life.

Burkhardt understood that.

And - judging by the outpouring Friday it is something that is a common thread among city workers.

Tilton - who has a sideline business selling hats - stepped up to create a Jeff “JB” Burkhardt Memorial Fund to make annual presentations in his honor and memory to carry on his spirit.

The first check from his business of $1,000 went to the Boys & Girls Club to - as Tilton put it - “to help kids who don’t have hardly anything.”

The importance of helping others in life was pure JB.

Employees also collected over $11,000 to present to his family to help with expenses.

But even in their grief they took the time to honor Ryan’s request.

Giving the shirt off his back is exactly what Burkhardt would have done if it would have helped make someone else happy. He’s a guy who wouldn’t hesitate to simply chat with a curious young boy, pump up a fellow worker, or warmly greeting a complete stranger.

And that is what makes a good man.