Gerry Burke Retirement Party Photo

Gerard "Jerry" Burke, the retiring CEO of Hillcrest Educational Centers, speaks at a gathering last month celebrating his 37 years as the leader of the nonprofit. Burke's wife, Kate, right, and his executive assistant, Kathy Barbieri, left, look on. 

PITTSFIELD — Gerard E. “Jerry” Burke received a rousing public send off last month to his 37-year career as the CEO of Hillcrest Educational Centers.

Over 200 people gathered under a tent on the lawn of Hillcrest Academy in Pittsfield on June 9 to say goodbye to Burke as he headed into retirement. Burke’s successor, former Hillcrest executive director Shaun Cusson, assumed his new duties as the nonprofit’s CEO this month.

The celebration also included the announcement that Hillcrest Academy, located in the former St. Mark School on Columbus Avenue Extension, has been renamed the Gerard E. Burke Academic Center. St. Mark School closed in 2015. The purchase and renovation of that campus into a state-of-the-art educational facility in 2016 and 2017 was one of Burke’s signature accomplishments during his long tenure at Hillcrest.

Hillcrest Educational Centers is part of Hillcrest Educational Foundation, a private not-for-profit agency that provides a range of individualized and comprehensive clinical, psychological and special education services for children, adolescents and families in Berkshire County and the Northeast with complex psychiatric, behavioral and/or developmental disorders. HEC campuses include a non-residential therapeutic day school, residential and non-residential autism services, and three residential treatment centers.

Burke’s retirement sendoff was not organized as a fundraiser, but more than $55,000 in contributions in Burke’s honor to support Hlllcrest’s programs were received. They included major gifts from the Donald C. McGraw Foundation and Black Rock Foundation.

A more precious gift came from three Hillcrest students, Tatiana, Kayla and CC. They organized schoolmates to create a hand-made quilt with patches describing how much Burke meant to the student body, along with a tribute book to honor him. Tatiana and Kayla have completed their high school diplomas while attending Hillcrest, and CC is entering an independent living program.

“The staff here never gave up on us when we came to difficult times,’’ said Tatiana, who like Kayla and CC came to Hillcrest after periods of extended personal difficulty that led to her having to withdraw from prior schools she had attended.

Added Kayla: “Living at Hillcrest has opened our eyes with new opportunities for our lives that we never thought would be possible.”

“These girls represent the best of who we are and we’re all about at Hillcrest,” Cusson said, after the girls had spoken.

Cusson also described Burke’s impact on Hillcrest, which included assisting the nonprofit overcome major financial challenges and problems maintaining accreditation during the 1980s.

“Jerry inspires all those around him to do better. He encourages them to grown professionally, and to never stop learning,” he said.

Cusson noted that under Burke’s leadership, Hillcrest has added multiple new programs, 12 additional new and renovated buildings, and created “from nothing” the largest MassHealth dental program in Western Massachusetts. That program has ensured access to critically important oral health services for thousands of children and young people.

Scott Pignatelli, the chairman of the board of directors of Hillcrest Educational Foundation, said Burke’s first priority was Hillcrest’s students.

“Jerry’s first concern was always the Hillcrest Educational Centers kids,” Pignatelli said. “One thing that has never wavered is Jerry’s dedication to HEC and to the community and all of Berkshire County,’’ he said.

Elizabeth Dello Russo Becker, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Approved Special Education Schools, of which Hillcrest is a major member, spoke about Burke’s impact outside the Berkshires.

Burke has had a “tremendous impact statewide” for decades as an advocate for all students in Massachusetts with special needs, she said.

A proclamation from the state Legislature honoring Burke on his retirement, and a similar proclamation from Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, were both presented and read by state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who is Scott Pignatelli’s brother. U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield sent a letter both thanking and praising Burke.

“You and your organization have had a profound impact on thousands of children,” Neal wrote.