Michael and Kay Birck

Michael and Kay Birck make their philanthropic decisions in the same way they’ve lived their lives: as a team. One of the latest of those decisions is to support stroke-related programs at Loyola University Health System (LUHS) through a $1 million gift. In recognition of their generosity, LUHS has named the Michael and Katherine Birck Rehabilitation Unit, located at the Loyola Center for Health at Burr Ridge, in their honor. “You get to know people at places and understand that there are legitimate needs,” said Mr. Birck. “We talk about it and over time come to a conclusion that is a joint one,” added Mrs. Birck. “We are both drawn to the same things, for the most part.”

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That includes being drawn to one another — they met at a dance where they both came with other dates. Mr. Birck’s sister, a classmate of the future Mrs. Birck at St. Anthony’s Hospital School of Nursing (now part of Indiana State University), introduced them that evening. Following their graduations three and a half years later, they were married. “Our honeymoon was a drive to New Jersey,” quips Mr. Birck, recalling that his first job as a newly minted engineer out of Purdue University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering was to take a job at Bell Labs there. Mrs. Birck found a nursing job.

For two young people who might never have expected to graduate from college, it was, in retrospect, an auspicious beginning. Mrs. Birck, whose mother died when she was just 5, was raised by great aunts who both worked in a Clabber Girl baking soda factory in Terre Haute, Ind. By working herself, and with the assistance of scholarships, she completed her nursing degree. Mr. Birck, one of five children of a U.S. postal carrier, also worked his way through college—substituting for his dad on the mail route, working in the Purdue cafeteria, at a Dog ’n Suds, and, in the summer, for Indiana Bell. His just-out-of-college position in the telecommunications field would be the first in a series of jobs and training (he also completed a master’s degree in electrical engineering through New York University) that ultimately led him to found, with five others, Tellabs, Inc. in Naperville, Ill. He is now the chairman of the board of this multibillion dollar world-wide corporation whose equipment is used in most telephone calls and Internet sessions in the U.S.

But it didn’t get there overnight. The Bircks recall that when Tellabs was a fledgling company, they sat their three children (then 14, 13, and 10) down and, “told them how life was going to be on no salary for a year—lots of hamburgers and hotdogs for dinner.” Mrs. Birck, along with the wives of the five other principals at Tellabs, went back to work. Mr. Birck, if he wasn’t at one of their children’s baseball games, typically worked seen days a week until 8 or 9 p.m., stopping for dinner when one of the wives brought it in. Aside from hard work and sacrifice, what does it take to create a company that is a leading communications carrier in more the 80 countries worldwide? “I have some business acumen,” Mr. Birck affirms, but adds quickly “you have to know you  stuff. I’m an engineer by training and inclination. I like to see how things behave under certain conditions and designed most of our early products.” He waxes eloquent about the “echo canceller,” their first big product, as well as the Titan, a highspeed, digital, cross-connect system that is still sold 22 years after it was introduced. “Engineering teaches you to think: it is too deep a subject to learn everything by rote,” he says—but perhaps more important to his business success was, “knowing how to get along with people, whether customers or employees. And a big part of that is fairness. If you’re not going to pay people, as we couldn’t at the start, you’ve got to treat them right, give them the opportunity to present their goals and aspirations.”

With success has come the opportunity to expand that idea into philanthropy. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, for an engineer and a nurse, that supporting research and addressing people’s educational and health-care needs has been the focus of the Bircks’ philanthropic work for some time now, particularly through Catholic institutions.

In addition to their most recent gift in support of stroke care, the Bircks have also supported cancer research at the Loyola University Health System through a $2 million gift to the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center. “Mr. and Mrs. Birck’s generosity to the health system over the years has always been very forward-thinking and this gift shows the same commitment to supporting innovation in patient care,” said Tony Englert, vice president, Development & External Affairs. The Loyola Center for Health at Burr Ridge project attracted them especially for its focus on compassionate design. Mrs. Birck, a stroke survivor who spent a lot of time in rehabilitation, knows well the importance of thoughtful care and tranquil surroundings in the healing process. The innovative care model at Burr Ridge reduces waiting times, emphasizes accessibility, and makes it possible to see a physician, have a test, and work with a physical therapist in one visit in a light-filled, serene space. It is, says Mr. Birck, a continuation of the health system’s commitment to “also treat the human spirit.”

For information on supporting innovative health care and research at Loyola University Health System, please contact the Office of Development & External Affairs, at development@lumc.edu or (708) 216-3201

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Working Hard, Giving Generously