Message from the President: Summer travels

July 25, 2011

To our alumni friends:

Sorry not to have written in a while. I’ve been on the road quite a bit since May’s commencement—some of the travel for business, some of it personal, and all of it fun.

In fact, one of the best parts of my job is catching up with those of you who reside a little farther away from campus than Lambeau Field. Just this past weekend, in fact, vice president for college advancement Phil Oswald and I were in New York City. In the span of several hours on Saturday, Phil and I were again reminded how accomplished our alumni are, and how diverse their accomplishments.

That morning, Phil and I drove out to Flushing, in Queens, where we met Dr. Ben Chu and his wife, Louisa, at a wonderful dim sum restaurant. Ben is a St. Norbert graduate (‘55) who went on to a highly distinguished career as a physicist, and even in his late seventies (though looking not a day over 60) he remains an active member of the science faculty at SUNY-Stony Brook, his home base since 1968. He also is a member of our board of trustees.

Ben is a marvel, and in fact it’s something of a miracle that he ever got to St. Norbert in the first place. Born in Shanghai, China, Ben fled with his family to Hong Kong after the Communist takeover. Since all the high schools in Hong Kong were oversubscribed at the time, Ben’s dad sweet-talked some Irish Jesuits into letting the boy enter their high school, where he excelled in science. As he was finishing, one of the Jesuits pulled him aside to say he’d heard there was a small Catholic college in Wisconsin that was offering a few full-ride scholarships to smart international students. Was he interested? One transpacific freighter ride and countless connections later, Ben found himself at St. Norbert.

After graduating in 1955, Ben went on to get his Ph.D. from Cornell. At Stony Brook he has been a prolific scholar and researcher, publishing more than 500 scientific papers, holding dozens of patents and collecting scientific honors from universities around the world. Now he is turning more aggressively to applied research. In particular, he recently co-founded a company that is trying to develop a more effective and inexpensive means of purifying water — both for humanitarian and commercial purposes. No doubt Ben will be as successful in this endeavor as he has been in all else he’s done.

From that meeting, Phil and I drove a mere 15 minutes down the highway to Belmont Park racetrack. There we met racing legend Tom Durkin, the sport’s most famous announcer and the voice of the Triple Crown for the past decade.

It was the next-to-last day of the Belmont meet, and Tom was in the announcer’s booth high above the track, getting ready for the day’s action. From Belmont he will head next to Saratoga in upstate New York, then back to Belmont and finally to Aqueduct.  He is funny and smart, and a bit of a latter-day Damon Runyon character (for you alums under 40, “Wikipedia” that). 

It was fascinating to see how intensively Tom prepares to call each race. In mere minutes, he systematically memorizes the name of every horse in the field and the corresponding silks of the jockeys. He charts out how he expects the race to unfold, digs into the history of each horse, and sets up with his high-powered binoculars just so. We then had the privilege of actually watching him call that day’s first race. His voice is a broadcaster’s dream, and from the moment the horses break from the gate he injects his call with a dramatic flair. Then, once the race is finished, he erases all that crammed-in information from his mind and starts the process all over again. Like all top professionals, Tom makes the impossible look effortless.

He got the bug to call races as a lad in Chicago, and he definitely had a knack for it early on. Former SNC classmates recall how he would look out the window of his Burke dorm and call imaginary contests, or how he would invent a “race” among the other kids just sitting around at a party. He got his start calling actual races by working little county fairs, many of them in rural Wisconsin, and after leaving the college in 1972 he started climbing the broadcasting ladder. To this day Tom remains close to SNC classmates, a number of whom make a point of getting together every year at the Saratoga meet to watch the ponies and relive memories.

Tom got quite a bit of media attention earlier this year when he announced that, at age 60, he was ready to let someone else take over the Triple Crown broadcasts. But fortunately for railbirds everywhere, he’ll continue announcing at New York’s legendary tracks.

Ben Chu and Tom Durkin couldn’t have chosen more divergent paths when they left this campus. But they have two things in common — a shared appreciation of their SNC experience, and the knowledge that they reached the top of their respective fields. They pursued, and attained, excellence.

Tom