Vincent P. Burke was born in St. Jacques, Newfoundland on August 3, 1878. He was educated in St. John's at St. Bonaventure's College and at Columbia University and was the first Newfoundlander to be a licensed superintendent of schools in New York. At the age of nineteen he became principal of the High School in Torbay.
Appointed Superintendent of Roman Catholic Schools in 1899, and Deputy Minister of Education in 1920, Dr. Burke visited many schools around the island and was made aware of the urgent need to have better-trained teachers. In a report written in 1921 when he was Deputy Minister of Education, he says: "Until we get more trained supervisors or helping teachers if you will, to visit our schools more frequently and to advise and help the teacher, the children of the people will not be given the educational help and service to which they are justly and rightly entitled".
He enjoyed visiting the schools and encouraged young people to go to University. He often approached his friends and city businessmen for donations to help further the education of some child he felt deserved a better education. One woman, recalling how impressed the children were when Dr. Burke was to visit the school said, "We would be looking forward to it for days, the children would be drilled and the school tidied in preparation for the event. When he came we were so surprised he was a rumpled-looking man who really loved telling stories - not at all the dour official we'd been expecting!"
Dr. Burke had the reputation of being forgetful about details and would sometimes show up on stage at a meeting wearing odd socks. It was traditional that on the day "The Inspector" visited a school the children would be given a half holiday - Dr. Burke would invariably make his goodbyes and leave the classroom without announcing the holiday. Then he would come dashing back, stick his head in the door and say, "Oh, by the way, you can all have this afternoon off". He worked hard towards setting up Memorial University College, and it was he who was instrumental in getting a grant of $300,000 from the Carnegie Corporation of America for the fledgling university. He was convenor of the first Board of Governors in 1925 when the college was established and chairman from 1936 to 1951. At the time of his death in 1953 he was the last surviving member of the original trustees.
Dr. A.C. Hunter, a long-time colleague and friend, said of him, "Memorial University College is a monument to qualities of mind and character possessed by Vincent Patrick Burke, to his enthusiasm, patience, perseverance and, above all, vision and imagination. Most people were still only beginning to accept the notion of a junior college when he was already thinking in terms of a university."