SPRINGFIELD — Throughout their lives, Colette Ann Durkin’s eight sons all heard it from friends, family members, neighbors or co-workers: “Your poor mother.”
Diminutive in size, Mrs. Durkin presided over the inevitable childhood mischief and daily conflicts within her brood — a lineup that eventually would comprise the top Republican in the Illinois House, a federal judge and a pair of attorneys at two of the city’s biggest law firms, including one who once headed the Chicago Bar Association.
Mrs. Durkin’s eldest son, Thomas, the federal judge, likened her to Solomon for the fair way she meted out justice when he and his brothers were rowdy kids, maintaining order by threatening to tell their father if a fight arose and insisting that “being mean” was no way to behave in a family or as a worthwhile adult.
“When there was no day care, no Nintendo, no video games, and no air-conditioning in a three-bedroom apartment on Adams Street on the West Side, that was a challenge, but she was able to pull it off,” Thomas Durkin said, recalling the way his mother kept everyone in line when they were all shoehorned under one roof during the family’s lean years in the 1950s and ’60s.
“My mother was a very small, short lady, but she raised eight boys, and some are quite big,” said Jim Durkin, the Illinois House minority leader. “We are all 6-foot-plus. I had a couple of other brothers who were pretty good-sized football players. My dad’s good-sized. He had these sizable guys, and this very petite Irish lady.
“This is a woman who knew exactly where our Achilles’ heel was. My mother was the one person who could knock us down in a second just by giving us a look,” he said.
On one occasion, she used more than just a look when it came to exerting her will. Her husband Tom, a Korean War veteran, was attending college night classes and his family was home when a would-be burglar positioned a ladder in order to break into their West Side apartment. She didn’t shrink or call the police.
“My mother went after him with a frying pan, and he fled,” said Thomas Durkin, her son.
Mrs. Durkin, of Westchester, died last month at age 83 after a short illness.
Beneath Mrs. Durkin’s level head and steeliness was a warm-hearted woman for whom family was her top priority. In fact, with a family as large as hers, she never stumbled when it came to remembering names, birthdays or anniversaries.
“Think of it: one husband, 16 sons and wives, 27 grandchildren, equals 44 birthdays. Add their own anniversary and our eight anniversaries. Fifty-three days of the year someone had something to celebrate, and she never forgot, whether it was a gift, a card, or a call,” the judge recalled.
“She would often call all eight of us on my dad’s birthday and ask if we wished our father a happy birthday. Knuckleheads all, of course we hadn’t. So he would get eight calls in a row,” he continued. “I think he knew we forgot, and mom didn’t. By the fifth call, he would usually ask, ‘Did your mother tell you to call?’”
Gov. Pat Quinn praised Mrs. Durkin.
“She was a lovely woman with a servant’s heart,” the governor said. “She understood that the most important thing in life was raising your children, and she did it extremely well.”
With some of her sons in the headlines, Mrs. Durkin was an avid follower of the news and held an especially dim view of her son Jim’s political rivals.
“She never held grudges except for people who ran against Jim in an election,” said Thomas Durkin, the judge.
Except for Jim Durkin’s opponents in elections or the state Legislature, Mrs. Durkin’s ability to forgive was one of her most positive traits, leaving an enduring mark on her sons.
“We’re only around, if we’re fortunate, 80 or 90 years. If you waste years on hatred or distrust or vengeance or mean-spiritedness, you don’t get those years back,” Thomas Durkin said. “What I learned from her is to forgive and forget, to move on. That’s great advice. It’s not unique, but I witnessed it in her.”
Mrs. Durkin and her husband pushed their sons to succeed academically, all attending Divine Infant grammar school and Fenwick High School in Oak Park before going their respective routes to college.
“All eight went to the same grammar school, the same high school. That’s quite a feat,” said Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs. “What you draw from that is my parents, who helped us all get through school, made sacrifices I can’t even describe. They sacrificed, whether it was trips or doing things for themselves. To them, everything was about education. They wanted us to go as far as we could. We all did that with their blessings and their support.”
Mrs. Durkin attended mass daily, adopted less fortunate families with her husband during the holidays and supported Catholic Charities, Misericordia and Mercy Home.
“The world is a better place because of Colette Durkin,” said her son, Kevin Durkin, a law partner with attorney Robert Clifford and a former head of the Chicago Bar Association. “In the end, that is the greatest thing you can say about a person.”
Indeed, born of the Depression, Mrs. Durkin did not consider herself poor, as some suggested when they expressed their empathy at how she had to juggle the demands of being traffic cop, short-order cook, friend and mom to eight sons born in the span of 13 years.
“She loved being a mother. She never thought of herself as ‘our poor mother,’” Thomas Durkin said. “She never felt sorry for herself. She reveled in having eight boys. It was eight times as much fun as having one boy.”
Mrs. Durkin is survived by her husband, sons, eight daughters-in-law and 27 grandchildren. Services have been held.