Virginia's oldest living state trooper, WWII Navy vet, turns 100
By Chase Purdy | The Roanoke Times, Va. | Published: March 15, 2013
ROANOKE, Va. — As a senior in high school, John Burrow’s parting words in his final yearbook were, “Time and tide wait for no man, so let’s speed.”
And then, in a seemingly perfect contradiction, Burrow joined the Virginia State Police as a trooper, where, to the chagrin of speed demons and crooks, he would earn the nickname “Thorough Burrow.”
Burrow turned 100 years old March 5, a milestone that won him recognition from the city of Salem and the Virginia State Police Alumni Association as the oldest living trooper in the state.
He retired from service in 1973 after 34 years, more than a decade of which was spent as the scrupulous captain of the then-fledgling Salem division.
So how does one commend a man for living a long and healthy life? The alumni association decided to go simple, with a plaque.
“At 100 years old, what do you give somebody?” mused John Rowles, of the association. “We congratulate him on attaining the age and also for his dedicated service for the commonwealth.”
Rowles said his organization was eager to present the award to Burrow on Sunday at a family party. Just a small token of consideration, another one for the wall, perhaps, alongside his other commendations for service.
In an interview this week from his suite at the Brandon Oaks retirement community, Burrow recounted stories from his time in uniform, much of which was spent patrolling a 14-county area in the Roanoke and New River valleys.
His tales touched on the typical and the obscure, highlighting the pace of the average patrolman’s shift and the unexpected odd calls that would ripple into the everyday.
Burrow said one weekend he and several troopers were called to a church where live, venomous snakes were being handled — an activity outlawed in Virginia.
“A man tried to throw a snake at me, but I used a night stick I had to trample it to the ground,” he said.
He recalled pausing a moment to reconsider his approach.
“I thought, ‘Here we are, several troopers down here, don’t we have better things to do on a Saturday night?’ ” he said. “If they got bit by a snake, we’d investigate it.”
Burrow said he took temporary leave from his trooper duties when he enlisted with the Navy during World War II. He worked as a transport sailor in the Pacific, where he witnessed kamikaze pilots plunge toward ships.
When he returned, he took up his state police duties where he’d left them.
One of 11 children, Burrow was raised on a farm in Prince George County. His house had no running water, and he said the family hunted and grew their own food.
His youngest sister, Ruth Figg, 84, said her brother was the fourth in a row of older brothers known for their playful antics.
“They used to get into a lot of mischief, I’m sure,” Figg said. “One time they all had the mumps at the same time, and I’m sure they were a handful.”
Burrow said he saw the state police as a route to success during a time when educating 11 children posed a formidable challenge for his parents.
“It was back in 1929 and things were kind of rough,” he said.
He was the only one of the 11 who chose law enforcement. The others would branch into teaching, nursing and bookkeeping. One even sold baby food for a living, Figg said.
She said her brother’s job kept him on the move in Virginia, which meant infrequent visits for a family sewn so tightly in their youths. Still, Figg said she was proud of her big brother and all his accomplishments.
“He has always been a very even-tempered person,” she said. “He was very thorough in everything that he did.”