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Loose Ends 5/17: Princeton’s Bob Durkee retires on top

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By Pam J. Hersh

Bob Cawley, Barbara Sigmund, Marvin Reed, Joe O’Neill, Mildred Trotman, Yina Moore, Jack Wallace, Jay Bleiman, Josie Hall, Win Pike, Gail Firestone, Kate Litvak, Dick Woodbridge, Larry Glasberg, Phyllis Marchand, Michele Tuck-Ponder (both before and after she added Ponder to her name), Bernie Miller, Chad Goerner, Liz Lempert – what do they all have in common?

All are individuals who have held the title of Princeton mayor – either Princeton Borough or Princeton Township or most recently, Princeton consolidated.

Perhaps even more significant from a Guinness World Records perspective is the fact Princeton University’s town/gown guru Bob Durkee has worked with all of them – and according to my unofficial calculations, Bob wins the record for working with more Princeton mayors than any other senior administrator at Princeton University.

Bob, a member of the Princeton University Class of 1969, began working at the university in 1972 as assistant to Princeton University President Bill Bowen. At that time, Bob had some, but not extensive, interactions with the mayors.

In 1978, however, Bob was appointed vice president for public affairs, a position he held until February 2018 – and that is when he and the mayors ramped up their relationship from casual dating to going steady. In 2004, he took on the added responsibilities of vice president and secretary. And as evidenced by the reception honoring Bob on Friday, May 10, Bob Durkee is retiring from the university after nearly five decades – and 19 Princeton mayors.

For 41 of those 47 years, I have known and worked with Bob  – in my various roles in Princeton as a: Princeton Packet reporter covering the university and the towns of Princeton; Princeton Packet managing editor; parent of children about the same ages as Bob’s children; Princeton University director of Community and State Affairs – reporting to Bob; senior administrator for Princeton Hospital dealing with hospital/university issues during the hospital’s move from Princeton to Plainsboro; Princeton Packet columnist continuously since 1980; and friend. Except for sharing kids’ and grandkids’ stories, town/gown issues have defined our conversations taking place in Nassau Hall and in Small World Coffee.

Most amazingly, in the course of town/gown conundrums that often left me inhaling Maalox and Cheetos, Bob dealt with angst-provoking situations with unflappable calm and focused listening. During internal and external discussions about the E-Quad, Arts and Transit/Dinky, affordable housing obligation, university’s tax-exempt status, parking and traffic, I never saw Bob lose his cool.

“There certainly were moments of frustration and disappointment, but with mayors and other elected officials, I thought there was always a fundamental good will and mutual respect, as well as a shared commitment to serving the best interests of the community.  However contentious, on every issue we eventually got to a good place,” he said.

One strategy for maintaining his cool was his enthusiasm for actually playing rather than just watching sports. “Sports, like softball and platform tennis where you can hit a ball as hard as you like, certainly help. But at the end of the day, the question is always ‘did you do the best you could’ and ‘did you do everything that could be done.’ If the answers are yes, you get to sleep at night and start fresh the next morning, knowing that every day is going to be full of surprises, and that you are working for a university – and a town – that are worthy of your best efforts,” Bob said.

At his retirement reception on May 10, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber presented Bob with a baseball bat, handcrafted by Princeton University’s carpenter shop out of white ash trees grown on campus. Former Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand quipped she hoped the university got the appropriate permits to take the trees down.

“In a Princeton career spanning five decades, Bob Durkee has rendered incomparable service to this university,” President Eisgruber said. I would add “and incomparable service to the community.” The contributions overseen by Bob’s office run the gamut from capital gifts (cash/equipment/structures) to gifts of social and cultural programs with all donations contributing to the quality of life in town.

“The town will probably always want the university to ‘do more,’ but I prefer to focus on all we have done and that list is long. It includes our annual unrestricted cash contribution, which was $10,000 when I started and is $3.35 million now. It includes gifts to the schools, the library, the hospital, the Arts Council of Princeton, the Battle Monument, the Princeton Community Pool and affordable housing units. But it also includes the Free-B shuttle bus, the firefighter program, the Garden Theatre, along with things like making our parking lots available on evenings and weekends,” Bob said.

Another contribution in my opinion was Bob’s steadfast support of a policy implemented during President Goheen’s tenure. All faculty/staff housing (including the university president’s residence) and graduate housing remain on the tax rolls – ensuring any property with the potential of producing children in the school system would generate revenue for the schools.

Numerous town/gown cultural initiatives touch residents of all ages and interests, with many programs being generated by different university departments, such as the art museum, music department, Woodrow Wilson School, engineering school and Plasma Physics Lab. Several programs have been the products of Public Affairs under Bob’s leadership.

“I was proud of the Martin Luther King Day program, including its essay and poster contests, and pleased that it attracted so many people from the community. I’m also very proud of the Community Auditing Program. One other moment I might add to the list is the program we conducted on Cannon Green shortly after 9/11.  It gave everyone in the community a place to come together to reflect and heal. And finally, the Reunion Fireworks. They have become a great attraction for the community and a nice way to offer something to local residents at a time when they are being inconvenienced by reunions and graduation.

“I hope my successors will continue to find multiple ways to help make the community a better place and to share with the community the intellectual, artistic, cultural, aesthetic and athletic life of the campus. I hope they will continue to try to find ways to engage our students more in the community – beyond their current engagement – through programs like Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad, Communiversity, Truck Fest and other forms of community service,” Bob said. And on a more concrete level, he hopes for a Harrison Street overpass at Route 1 – an improvement that would have tremendously positive ramifications for both the town and gown communities, and the entire region.

Considering Bob’s storied reputation as a “gold medal Olympian” writer and editor (in the words of President Eisgruber), it is most fitting one of Bob’s favorite town/gown anecdotes concerned a typo.

Princeton Borough Mayor Barbara Sigmund “really wanted some drop-off spots at the Dinky station and she asked the Princeton Borough staff to install signs that said “Kiss and Ride.”  She handwrote what she wanted the signs to say and, in her handwriting, an “s” looked like an “l.”  So when the signs first went up, the signs said “Kill and Ride.”  Fortunately the writing mistake was quickly righted, and no companions were murdered in the drop-off zone.

Speaking of companion, the next several months of Bob’s life will be consumed by a companion – “A Princeton Companion,” by Alexander Leitch. Bob will be updating this renowned reference book on all aspects of Princeton University’s life, past and present. “A Princeton Companion,” coincidently, was first published in 1978 – the year Bob became vice president for Public Affairs, the job that truly made him the university’s companion to the town(s) of Princeton.

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