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Durkin Crosses the Finish Line

More than four decades since he was a St. Norbert College student, Tom Durkin (above, right) walked across the stage at May’s Commencement ceremony as a graduate.

At 68 years old, the well-known horse-race caller, now retired, is the oldest St. Norbert grad on record.

Durkin attended St. Norbert from 1968-73, but he left the college just two courses shy of completing his degree. He built a successful career in sportscasting, calling more than 80,000 horse races in America and Europe, including the infamous Triple Crown races – the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. His reputation and connection with St. Norbert led former SNC President Thomas Manion to present him with an honorary degree in 2002.

But all that didn’t stop Durkin from completing the baccalaureate degree he set out to earn 51 years before.

“I was always a little disappointed that my parents didn’t get to see this horse come in,” says Durkin. “It always bugged me, but I felt good about going back.”

Durkin enrolled at State University of New York’s Adirondack campus last fall, completing courses in psychology and cultural anthropology and transferring the credits for those classes back to SNC. He earned A’s in both courses.

“I was also an ancient compared to those 18-year-olds,” he chuckles. “I was almost the subject of study in our anthropology class.”

Durkin admits that college wasn’t always the easiest for him. But, after taking a semester off in 1969, he returned to SNC to study theatre. When he was cast for the title role in Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” things began to shift in the right direction. The first week of rehearsals was tough, but Kelly Collum (Theatre Studies, Emeritus) sparked new life in Durkin. When rehearsals weren’t going well, Collum would jump up and shout, “Energy! Energy! Energy!” A simple phrase, but one that Durkin says had a profound impact on all he’s done since.

“He drilled those three words into me,” he says. “I used to write them down on every [horse race] program I called just to remind me of all the good things that can come when you have energy.”

Looking back at his career, Durkin attributes his success to SNC and a liberal arts education.

“There’s no place in the world where they teach people how to call horse races,” he shares. “I drew upon critical thinking and a wide variety of subjects … music, literature and neurological science, believe it or not, because memorization is very important in calling races.”

July 1, 2019