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Former John Deere dealer dies

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Joseph Burks had several local connections

Sorrow touched the hearts of many in Shelby County last week with the loss of a man who was well-known not only as a local businessman for half a century but also for his generosity and love for his community.

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Joseph E. Burks, 89, was the husband of 66 years of Mary Anderson Burks, and father to Joseph E. II, Carl David, Mark Athel, John Jay Crittenden (deceased) and Paul Morgan Burks and Bonnie Burks Gray. He owned the John Deere dealership in LaRue County many years ago.

He was perhaps best known as the owner and operator of Shelby Supply Company, where he sold John Deere products in the county for more than 50 years.

But his influence went so much farther than that, his daughter said.

“If you're a farmer, you'll remember Dad for caring about the success of every farmer in Shelby County,” Gray said.

Paul Hornback, one of those farmers and a newly elected state senator, recalled Burks as an honest man who genuinely cared about people, especially farmers.

“You could go in his store and sit down and talk with him, and you knew he was going to be fair with you,” Hornback said. “He did a lot for agriculture in Shelby County, and he was a tremendous asset to the farming community.”

But Burks also is known for being just as active in his church community at Centenary United Methodist Church in Shelbyville. The church was destroyed by fire in 1978, and Burks was instrumental in helping it rebuild at the same location.

Rev. Harold Hunter, who was pastor of the church at that time, described Burks as a gracious, kind person and recalled his determination to head up the church's rebuilding committee.

“He had a deep commitment to his Lord and his church and he gave an awful lot of his time over four and a half years to get the church rebuilt,” Hunter said. “He and I spent many, many hours on the phone and working together to get that accomplished.”

Burks carried over that connection to his faith into his everyday life, and Gray recalls how her father had a habit of using parables from the Bible.

“He would always talk in parables, and his version would maybe not be an exact quote from the Bible, but it was also said in the spirit of Jesus,” she said.

That his favorite was the story of the faithful servant found in the Gospel of Luke, which was printed on the memorial card for his funeral service, which is today at Hall-Taylor Funeral Home, may have said a lot about Burks and his commitments to community and friends.

Lasting friendships

Hunter said the friendship he shared with Burks has lasted throughout all these years. “He was my buddy, that's all I can say,” he said.

And Burks' ability to make friends easily and to keep them for life was carried forward to his later years at Amber Oaks Assisted Living, where he and his wife had lived for the past eight months after he lost his eyesight to macular degeneration.

He didn't let the loss of his sight get him down, and he didn't go quietly, either. Bonnie Gray describes her father as a man who would “never give up,” and that proved true when he arrived at Amber Oaks.

“The minute he got in there, he jumped right into getting on some of their committees,” she said.

Burks became special friends with the facility's executive director, Dean Windsor, who said the pair enjoyed listening to country music and talking about old times. “He shared experiences about his life with me, and I shared the same with him,” Windsor said.

“We had a lot in common; he was a marine and a mason, and I'm a mason, too. We used to joke around that we wished we were the same age. We would have such a good time just hanging out and doing business things together.”

But that friendship went much deeper, too.

“He was my friend and my mentor,” Windsor said. “I'm a relatively new ED, and Joe would give me advice when I had questions about how to run things or how a leader should be.

“I will never forget one of the things that he said to me - 'Knowledge is good, but to be a good leader it's the size of your heart that counts, not the size of your head.'“

Family business

Mark Burks worked with his father at Shelby Supply for 20 years and took over the business in 2000. And he said those years allowed him to hear all the great stories his father loved to share.

“He was a wonderful storyteller,” Mark Burks said. “He made a big effort to become well-acquainted with all the farmers in the area, and they would enjoy just coming in the store to hear him tell stories about when he was growing up in the depression.

“They were such wonderful, colorful stories, and people never got tired of them hearing them.”

A native of New Albany, Ind., Burks grew up in Hodgenville and served in World War II with the 1st Separate Tank Company, 3rd Marine Division.

After his discharge, he went to work for John Deere as territory manager in western Kentucky and in 1955 moved to Shelbyville to become partners in Shelby Supply Company, which had been founded in 1945 by Jim Guthrie and Lewis Mathis.

A few years later, he bought them out and became sole owner of the business, which was at the corner of Scotts Station Road and U.S. 60 before moving to a larger facility on Taylorsville Road, where his son still holds forth.

“I guess a lot of kids want to be like their folks, and that's what I wanted, to be like him, and he let me do that,” Mark Burks said. “I know a lot of fathers are overbearing and want to keep a tight grip on things, but he wasn't like that - he let me make my own decisions. He gave me that opportunity.”

Lasting legacy

In 2008, when Mark Burks wanted to merge Shelby Supply with the Dixie Farm Store in Elizabethtown and the Bowen Farm Supply in Gardnersville to form Limestone Farm, Lawn & Worksite, his father gave him his blessing.

“It's called Limestone Farm, Lawn & Worksite, and it's owned by JHA [partnership], which stands for Joseph E. Burks [the J], the 'H' is for Hugh Gwynn and the 'A' is for Arnold Ross, after our three founders,” he said.

The company has five dealerships that sell John Deere products in Shelbyville, Florence, Elizabethtown, Campbellsville and Gardnersville and continues a passion that his father carved into a life.

Mark Burks recalled the days when his father would sell tractors all day and work on hay balers for farmers at night. He agreed that his father wouldn't let retirement slow him down.

“If he had not gone blind, I know he would have still been selling tractors,” Mark Burks said.

Windsor said he is just glad he got the chance to know Burks, and he will miss his friend very much.

“He had such a deep love of life,” he said. “He really found the good in people and really truly wanted to give and help others. He was such a special person.”