Joe Durnin: Service to country and village as secret agent, mayor, trustee and veterans advocate

Army veteran Joe Durnin at the Town of Pelham’s Memorial Day ceremonies.

When Joe Durnin was elected mayor of the Village of Pelham, he made a point of getting to know everyone who worked for the village. He went to the police and fire departments and introduced himself. He spoke to the workers at sanitation.

“The feeling of respect is something that I believe in very strongly,” Durnin said. “My philosophy is that you can’t expect to get respect until you give respect.”

Forty years ago, Durnin had friends involved in local politics who convinced him to run for a trustee position on the Village of Pelham board. His friends told him to let everyone know that he was running and to print up a flier. He got someone to deliver it door to door. In 1980, Durnin was elected a trustee and went on to be voted in as mayor in 1988, serving through 2001.

When he became the mayor, he also became a marriage officer because mayors are allowed to marry people inside the village. He still retains that title by appointment from the Town of Pelham.

“I love being a marriage officer,” he said.”I have married around five hundred couples, and even married the same couple twice. My friends called me ‘The Marrying Mayor.'”

Perhaps best known to many current residents for his speeches at the Memorial Day, Veterans Day and 9/11 ceremonies, Durnin’s 21 years in politics are only one example of his life of service to village and country. He was a spy in the U.S. Army, has worked for decades to honor the contributions of veterans and helped start the Danny Fund.

Joe Durnin with his wife Jan.

Durnin joined the Army in 1967 during the Vietnam War. He scored high on his military test and was sent to military intelligence and Japanese language school after basic training. Assigned to intelligence, he said, he was stationed in Tokyo with secret orders and lived under an assumed name. His job was to get to know Japanese people and learn about their encounters with citizens from the Soviet Union, North Korea and China. He said his work consisted of using an expense account to visit bars and restaurants and talk with locals to get inside information for the U.S. government.

Durnin was in the army for three years on active duty and three years in the reserves. He said he enjoyed living in Japan and that his neighbors were very kind, honest and helpful.

Durnin was born in September of 1945 and grew up with five siblings on Chestnut Avenue in Chester Park. Pelham was a close-knit community then, similar to how it is today, he said. If a family needed something, everyone was willing to help. In the summer, he and his friends would leave their houses in the morning and stay out all day. As long as they were home for dinner, no one minded. He said he would often visit the Pelham Public Library, which was then crammed into the basement of Hutchinson Elementary School—and read two to four books a week.

“I think reading is the foundation that moves children along towards a better education and a desire to learn,” he said. “It’s so important. I still read three to four books a week.”

When he returned to the U.S. from Japan, Durnin got a job in New York City working for a Japanese company. He married his childhood sweetheart, Jan, and they moved to Osaka, Japan, and lived there for three years. Their son was born in Japan, and they moved back to Pelham just afterwards.

Joe Durnin

On his return to town, he joined American Legion Pelham Post 50 as the first Vietnam War era veteran in the organization. He started writing the Memorial Day and Veterans Day speeches and was soon named commander. The post will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2022.

And he found other ways to assist people.

With some of his friends, Durnin helped start the Danny Fund, an organization that aids families when a child gets sick. Durnin said he had a friend who he played softball with, and his friend had a son with cancer, Danny Potocki. Danny was three years old when an experimental drug was tried on him. A year later, the cancer was gone.

Durnin and his friend staged softball and volleyball games to raise money for the treatments. Through the Danny Fund, they and many others have helped families when their children became sick.

“We would raise money to pay for the mortgage on the house, phone bills, food, anything to keep the family together instead of thinking about money,” said Durnin.

Joe Durnin still lives in Pelham, in the house his wife was born in. They are retired, but you will still see him at the Memorial Day, Veterans Day and 9/11 ceremonies. And marrying a happy couple.