HADDON HEIGHTS – For the first time in 40 years, Theresa Durkin isn’t lacing up her shoes to lead students in warmups, stretches, or relays at Saint Rose of Lima School.
She’s still around, however, to offer direction and greet children with a smile.
“This is home,” Durkin says.
A pillar in the school community for four decades, and a fixture in South Jersey’s Catholic education and athletics for five, Durkin, 76, put away the sneakers after the end of the last school year.
“It was time,” the former physical education teacher says about retiring, admitting, however, “that it’s been very difficult. … Saint Rose of Lima has been my life; there’s not a time that I didn’t love it here.”
Such is the reason why, on some days, she can still be found in the K-8 school’s halls assisting the school principal, Deacon Joseph Rafferty.
“[She’s ] a role model and spiritual giant, with faith and a sense of compassion for all kids,” he says, adding that Durkin has always been “a calm in the storm.”
“She leaves a legacy of selflessness and caring,” he says.
An Audubon Park native, Durkin is a graduate of Sacred Heart School, Mount Ephraim, and Gloucester Catholic High School, where she served as the captain of a girl's basketball team that was a leader in South Jersey sports. She went on to become a middle school girls basketball referee and took a fourth-grade teaching position at Runnemede’s Saint Teresa School.
Soon, a phone call changed her path.
“A teacher that I knew from Sacred Heart called and told me about an opening there for a physical education teacher, for once a week. I said ‘Ok, I can handle that.’”
One day a week became much more after she took a job with Saint Rose, too. She continued pulling double-duty until Sacred Heart’s closure in 1997. Plus, she continued to officiate basketball games until recently.
Her achievements did not go unrecognized. Durkin was inducted into the Camden County Sports Hall of Fame in 2004, and she received the Camden County’s 2017 Bob Kenney Memorial Award, which honors “distinguished service and dedication to youth or scholastic sports” in the county.
Saint Rose of Lima presented her with its first-ever Golden Falcon Award during last year’s eighth-grade graduation, thanking her for “40 years of love and dedication.”
In retirement, she plans to spend more time with her husband of 55 years, John; her children and grandchildren, and brother-in-law, retired priest of the Diocese Father James Durkin. She will also continue her habit of walking three to four miles a day, six days a week.
Durkin said she will miss the daily routine of classes that began with prayer and continued with activities such as capture the flag or crab soccer. Her lessons were not just in strengthening the physical form, but building a solid spiritual foundation, too.
“I tried to emphasize sportsmanship, perseverance, teamwork, the motivation being a good person,” Durkin explains. Also, she let her students know that “we weren’t [exercising] to win trophies or scholarships, but to learn a skill, and work with each other.”
In honoring her last school year, school staff wrote how Durkin “touched the lives of thousands of students and made an impact on generations, in many cases seeing the children of her former students come up through her classes.”
Aime Callinan can relate. A 1989 graduate, Callinan’s daughters Clare (sixth grade) and Catherine (fifth) now attend the school, and she works as an aide to the advancement director. Callinan says she enjoys sharing gym class stories with her daughters.
“She was a rock of this tight-knit community; the epitome of kindness, faith and positivity,” Callinan says, adding that Durkin was a mentor when she was a student.
“There’s a joy about her,” Callinan says of a woman who modeled Christian values in “treating everyone with love and dignity. She embraced the students, families and school community.”
“I want my children to have a faith-based education, and be kind and loving to others. Mrs. Durkin is somebody who’s brought that,” she continues.
Dr. William Watson, diocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools, was a classmate of Callinan’s. He remembers a gym teacher who “was always present around the school community,” and he praised the “institutional knowledge” that she gathered over the years, becoming a trusted and faithful asset in “building the Saint Rose of Lima School community.”
Like Callinan, Watson is able to share his memories of Durkin with his own children who attend the school: Owen (eighth grade), Noah (sixth), Anna (third), and Grace and Joseph (first).
Watson praised Durkin for “earning the respect of children of all ages. To be able to be present to a 7-year-old and a 14-year-old, that’s not easy to do. My children and I will miss her.”
published here with the permission of The Catholic Star Herald