Marist Welcomes Home a Hero
Professor Tommy Zurhellen completed 2800 mile walk across the country for veterans.
“You have to forgive me, I’m a little bit in shock. You have to understand that I haven’t talked to anybody in five months.”
These were the words of Marist College professor Thomas “Tommy” Zurhellen as he was welcomed home on Friday, Aug. 23 after completing an over 2,800 mile walking trip across the nation in solidarity with military veterans.
Zurhellen walked 22 miles each day from Portland, OR to Poughkeepsie, NY to draw awareness to the number of veterans that commit suicide daily, a number estimated by the Veterans Administration.
He began his journey in Portland on Apr. 15 and trekked through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York to make people across the nation aware of his cause.
Zurhellen’s goal was to not only raise awareness around issues facing the veteran population, but to also collect donations for two local charities, Hudson River Housing and Vet2Vet, who work with veterans. Before setting out, his fundraising benchmark was set at $40,387 to represent the number of homeless veterans.
“Tommy took it upon himself to show that one person can, indeed, have a significant impact on our world and inspire others to join him in doing the right thing,” said Interim President Dennis Murray in a ceremony following Zurhellen’s return.
Upon passing through the main gate, Zurhellen was met by President Murray and his wife, along with more than a hundred Marist students, ROTC members standing at attention, and an American flag flying from the ladder of a firetruck, in addition to the numerous VetZero members, fans from the local community, and area officials that flanked him. He then marched with the crowd, led by two drummers dressed in Civil War military uniforms and the ROTC Color Guard, to the Rotunda where he was met with a great applause from more supporters.
Members of the music department greeted the audience with patriotic performances of the National Anthem and, at the end of the program, America the Beautiful.
“It’s just crazy to see how much the Marist community actually comes together in moments like these,” said student Jonathan Vose, ’21. “Appreciating what we have and who we can help and what we can do together, it’s pretty cool.”
While being welcomed back by President Murray, Zurhellen was awarded with the New York Conspicuous Service Medal, the second highest New York State National Guard military award.
Murray was also joined on stage by Adam Roche from Vet 2 Vet of Dutchess County, and Christa Hines, Executive Director of Hudson River Housing, along with members of the Poughkeepsie Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 170, to which Zurhellen serves as commander.
“When Tommy gathered me and his team from Marist…to tell us about this epic journey he had planned to walk across America, honestly I wasn’t surprised,” stated Hines to the audience. “That is exactly the kind of guy that Tommy is. He’s out to make a really big difference in a really big way, and boy has he.”
Zurhellen was also delighted to learn upon his arrival that he not only met his fundraising goal, but surpassed it. According to the VetZero gofundme page, Zurhellen raised a little over $50,000, in addition to a donation that was made by an unidentified local trust.
“I’ve been a homeless veteran for the last four months and I’ve learned so much,” said Zurhellen during his speech. “Our students are the people who want to change the world, and we always tell our students in the classroom, ‘go out there and change the world!’ But we never seem to try and do it ourselves.”
“I appreciate what Tommy’s doing for [this cause],” said David Rogers, Marist ROTC Program Coordinator and a combat veteran. “His speech really inspired to do a little bit more instead of just talking about it or thinking about it, so I’m pretty excited that he actually went out and did it.”
As for what he would do next, Zurhellen candidly stated, “well, the semester starts Monday. And Dr. Murray does not know this but I forgot my password, being away for four, five months. So, I can’t get into myMarist, [and] I have no idea what I’m teaching or when.”
Zurhellen then apologized to a student who would be in one of his classes, saying, “I have no idea what we’re going to do on Monday. But it’ll be fun!”
“It’s great how he’s not only doing this for the amazing causes that he did it for, but he’s also doing this for Marist and trying to inspire the professors and the students,” said student Bridget Murtha, ’20. “His reach really was so much bigger than I think he ever intended it to be.”
“I don’t even have words,” said Zurhellen following the ceremony. “I should have had words prepared, but I actually don’t have words. I had no idea it was going to be so amazing. I’ve been teaching here now 16 years and I’m here basically every day of the week, and to make this kind of statement about something that I did, it’s so overwhelming.”