Hospitality business maven and tireless volunteer served up her best for Albuquerque - Albuquerque Journal

Hospitality business maven and tireless volunteer served up her best for Albuquerque

Dixie Burch, a successful Albuquerque caterer, director of convention services and restaurant manager, in an undated photo. Burch, who was also a creative and hardworking volunteer for various organizations and causes, died in April. (Courtesy of Kelli Cooper)

Dixie Burch and her husband moved from Oklahoma to Albuquerque in 1954 to open an A&W root beer stand on West Central.

Burch’s daughter, Kelli Cooper, said one of that A&W’s best customers was future recording, TV and movie star Glen Campbell, then just a teenager performing in his uncle’s Albuquerque band, Dick Bills and the Sandia Mountain Boys.

“He used to sit at the counter and flirt with my mother while my father was cooking at the grill right behind her,” Cooper said.

From root beer and burgers, Burch blossomed into a catering and events-organizing career that made her a star in New Mexico’s hospitality industry. She was equally well known and admired as a tireless and inventive volunteer whose leadership nurtured the New Mexico Arts and Crafts Fair into the thriving attraction it continues to be, and she was the heart and spirit behind the creation of the Mother’s Day symphony concerts at the zoo, which evolved into the music-infused event being celebrated at ABQ BioPark today.

“She had boundless energy, was full of creativity and had more ideas than we could keep up with,” said Ginger Grossetete, a longtime friend who worked with Burch in the Albuquerque Women’s Symphony Association and the Albuquerque Opera Guild. “She was always out to make the world a better place. She contributed her time and skills to do that, and she had plenty of skills.”

Burch died on April 19. She was 88. Survivors include her daughter Kelli and husband Kevin; four grandchildren, Casey, Corey and Dixie Cooper and Tyler Burch; a great-granddaughter, Jayna Bratton; a sister, Kay Matthews, and a brother, Edward Matthews. She was preceded in death by her son, Brad Burch.

Food and fundraising

The Burchs sold the A&W in 1960, when Dixie’s husband went into the real estate business and she started raising a family and volunteering in what may have seemed like non-stop blur.

“Our kids actually thought we had jobs because we were gone so much with our volunteer work,” Grossetete said.

Besides the Symphony Association, Burch was in the Junior League, the Albuquerque Opera Guild and worked with March of Dimes and other organizations.

“Those women were full-time volunteers,” Cooper said. “Most women didn’t work (at jobs) then. They shaped Albuquerque in a way you can’t now.”

Dixie Burch with George H.W. Bush, one of many dignitaries who were guests at parties or dinners organized by Burch. (Courtesy of Kelli Cooper)

She said her mother got her involved in volunteer work early.

“When I was in second grade, she recruited me and my best friend for the Mothers March for the March of Dimes and sent us knocking on doors,” Cooper said.

Ruth Duffy worked with Burch in the Junior League.

“We did rummage sales at the Albuquerque Civic Auditorium,” she said. “And we worked on the Junior League Follies, which was like a talent show. It was a fundraiser. Some got up there and danced, and some of them sang.

“And we certainly spent a lot of time over at Dixie’s house doing committee meetings. She had wonderful food, hors d’oeuvres while we were meeting.”

Martha Day worked with Burch in the Albuquerque Women’s Symphony Association and on developing the Mother’s Day concert program. She said Burch had innovative ideas about food and loved to cook but was always ready to look for a chicken-fried steak restaurant, which Day, an Oklahoman like Burch, appreciated.

Cooper said that people who knew that her mother cherished cooking would try to make fancy food for her.

“But she was a Southern cook. Ten days a week, she’d pick chicken-fried steak, fried okra, beans, collard greens and cornbread.”

Mrs. New Mexico

Burch won the Mrs. New Mexico title in the early ‘60s, a time when many women were housewives and took pride in that.

“She won for her personality and her shrimp curry recipe,” Cooper said. “She had never been to Florida before, so she went there for the national competition. But she got an ear infection and had to compete with a big piece of cotton in her ear.”

In the early ‘70s, Albuquerque Mayor Harry Kinney recruited Burch to organize the grand-opening celebration of the Albuquerque Convention Center, which turned into an extravagant four-day affair.

“She formed a teenage volunteer committee, which I was chair of,” Cooper said. “We went to every single high school and said, ‘We want someone from your school to perform at the opening.’ I was on the Del Norte drill team, so our team performed. But we had ROTC groups from schools and debate teams. If you could stand in a room and perform, you were invited. We had entertainers in every room of the convention center for four days.”

Dixie Burch has a hard time taking herself seriously as she prepares to peer through a submarine periscope. Burch was among New Mexico community leaders invited to San Diego in 1994 to learn more about the U.S. Navy. (Courtesy of Kelli Cooper)

Volunteer work proved to be a good training ground. Day became director of development at KNME-TV, Grossetete worked as the social services manager of the Albuquerque Office of Senior Affairs and Duffy as a special education teacher at New Futures High School.

Burch and her husband divorced in 1974, and she used her food, entertaining and organizing skills, as well as contacts garnered during her many years of volunteer work, to get a catering job at the old Four Seasons on Carlisle. From there she went to the Doubletree Hotel Downtown, the former Hyatt Regency on Tijeras and the late Petroleum Club at 500 Marquette NW.

Burch was in her element during these years, which stretched into the 2000s, and she flourished.

“She was very, very creative, both with food and decorations,” Duffy said. “And she had a wonderful personality. She just drew people to her.”

In 1982, she coordinated the opening of United World College in Montezuma, six miles northwest of Las Vegas. That event was attended by Prince Charles, now King Charles III. She and her cooking team created a dish called Montezuma Chicken for the occasion.

Cooper said that dish sold well for years after the college opening because everybody wanted to eat what the prince had eaten.

On the road

Burch spent as much time as she could, especially after her employment years, with friends.

“Everybody and their dog had a book club,” said Day. “We had a bookless club. Oh, we’d pick a book. I remember Dixie picked ‘Kitchen Confidential.’ But the club wasn’t really about the book.”

Duffy and Burch were in the Eating Out Again (EOA) club, which met once a month at different eateries.

“She loved the opera,” Grossetete said. “We’d go to Santa Fe and to movie theaters when they showed opera. And we did three wonderful road trips.”

The first trip was to Florida, where Burch had relatives, but there were many stops going and coming in the journey which lasted about a month. They went to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis and a music festival in New Orleans.

“And everywhere we would go, Dixie would check her cellphone to find out where all the locals went to eat.” Grossetete said.

The second trip was to visit a friend in Red Lodge, Montana, the third a car trip in upstate New York.

“We were great friends,” Grossetete said.

“I remember the laughter, the creativity and the energy,” Day said.

“She was a wonderful person, always interested in taking care of other people,” Duffy said.

Cooper said her mother’s ashes will be spread at the Santa Fe Opera.

“She had a passion for the community,” Cooper said. “She had a passion for people who volunteered and gave of their time. Volunteers would come to her for help, and she would help anybody.”

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