Grandfather’s Legacy Inspires Granddaughter’s Career

Eli Lilly and Company  | February 17, 2020

Heather Rodman Karazim always had a special bond with her maternal grandfather, Allen Burke. He loved to garden and when she was very young, he taught her how to grow the vegetables he used in meals he cooked for the family. 

“He was always in the kitchen, cooking every delicious meal from scratch,” she said. She loved the twinkle in his eyes when he told stories about his 42-year career at Lilly. 

“He was hired at Lilly in 1942, at a time when opportunities for African Americans were few,” Karazim said. “His pay was 56 cents an hour, which was enough back then to provide for his family, and he was grateful.” 

Over Karazim’s career at Lilly since 2000, the two marveled at how things had changed. 

In an interview for Lilly’s archives recorded in 2014, Mr. Burke, born in 1920, recalled his childhood on the family farm in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He recalled that white children and black children walked to school together. Separate schools. “They had to walk a little farther to the white school,” he said. 

Segregation was also part of his career at Lilly, he recalled. He was a leader and president of the “Board of Colored Employee Activities,” which held separate parties, picnics and sporting events from a similar employee group for whites. “At Christmas, we had beautiful parties,” he recalled, “with the men in tuxes and the women in beautiful long dresses.” 

A favorite memory was the time “Mr. Eli,” then-president of the company and grandson of the founder, stopped by Mr. Burke’s work area around Christmas. Mr. Burke invited him to have lunch with the black employee group. “He said no, but I could buy him a Coke. So I bought him a Coke for 10 cents, and it was a highlight of my life,” he said, laughing. 

About 13% of the workforce was African American in those days because of a policy issued by J.K. Lilly Jr., another grandson of the founder, in 1948 – around the time he became president of the company. The policy required that Lilly’s workforce have the same percentage of blacks as the city of Indianapolis and “that there should be no discrimination in matters of wages, treatment, or other personal considerations.” Cafeterias, employee lounges and restrooms were desegregated in 1951. 

But leadership roles back then were hard to come by for African Americans. Burke was the first African American to hold several management positions in facilities and maintenance. “I enjoyed the work, and most of all I enjoyed it because they gave me an opportunity,” Burke said in the interview. 

His granddaughter recalled: “He was smart, outgoing and moved up because he was always ready to take advantage of opportunities to get additional training.” 

Karazim, a senior director in Lilly Bio-Medicines, is grateful for her grandfather’s example. 

“He accomplished so much more than he imagined possible because he faced doubts and challenges with perseverance. If my mother or I ever doubted our abilities, he would always tell us, ‘You’re a Burke. You can do anything.’ That’s a message I have passed on to my own children.” 

Long after he retired in 1984 as night foreman in maintenance, she said, "until he passed away in 2018 at age 97, he was quick to remind us about how he was still collecting his monthly pension check. He was so proud of his career at Lilly,” she said. 

“And he was proud of mine.”