Wayne Duerkes has a little more life experience than your average college undergraduate.
Duerkes is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, having served as an air defense controller during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. He and his wife, Jennifer, are raising three children. He spent years building up a successful newspaper distribution company, only to lose it during the severe economic downturn in recent years.
It could have been a crushing blow for Duerkes. Instead, he did what Marines do: improvise, adapt, overcome.
While it meant digging into his savings and living lean, Duerkes began to pursue a degree in an area of study he has always loved – U.S. history. He enrolled first at Waubonsee Community College, and then came to NIU, where his undergraduate career has been filled with one accomplishment, award and scholarship after the next.
“In some ways, I’m your typical college student – I’m as poor as you can get, but I’m happy,” Duerkes says. “History is important. It’s not cancer research, but if we don’t know where we came from, we don’t know where we are going.”
Duerkes’ latest accomplishment is no doubt the most meaningful. The 41-year-old Somonauk man has been named as the 2012 NIU Student Lincoln Laureate, an accolade reserved for the university’s top senior.
The Student Lincoln Laureate award is bestowed annually upon just one senior from each of the state’s public and private four-year colleges and universities. Recognizing excellence in both curricular and extracurricular activities, the awards will be presented Saturday, Nov. 3, during the Student Laureate Convocation at the historic Old State Capitol in Springfield.
“It’s an honor to represent the university in this way,” Duerkes says. “And, having my kids there at the ceremony in Springfield, as a father, there’s nothing more rewarding.”
Duerkes says his two sons, ages 12 and 9, and his 7-year-old daughter have been an extraordinary source of motivation.
“We feed off each other,” he says. “It’s hard for a kid in grade school to see tangible benefits of education. But when they see their dad doing homework, getting good grades and winning awards, it motivates them.”
After graduation in May, Duerkes intends to enroll in graduate school and plans to eventually teach history at the university level.
“Wayne has a very positive attitude and truly embraces learning and education,” says history instructor Sandra Dawson. “He is a leader at Northern Illinois University and is destined to continue that leadership beyond his undergraduate career.”
Since arriving at NIU in August 2011, Duerkes has maintained a nearly perfect grade point average in the rigorous University Honors Program, while also working at Founders Memorial Library. Among his many achievements, he was named last spring as one of two inaugural University Honors Summer Scholars. The program provides top students with a $4,500 stipend to conduct capstone project research.
Duerkes used the funds in part to travel to library archives in Chicago and Springfield, while researching the development of economic and trade markets in the Fox Valley region from 1833 to 1852, when the area was being settled.
As part of NIU’s Research Rookies program, Duerkes unearthed insights into the motivations that inspired men from the northern Illinois region to enlist in the Civil War. He combed through letters and diaries from the period to produce a research article that will be published this winter in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.
“It’s fascinating history,” Duerkes says. “You can see within those letters the progression of these soldiers from boyhood into manhood. It’s phenomenal for them to share their lives with you 150 years later.”
Duerkes’ interest in history, particularly U.S. military history, was sparked at a young age when his father kept him out of school to take the family on a surprise trip. It turned out to be the Civil War battlefield in Shiloh, Tenn.
Duerkes’ father was a Marine as well, having served four tours in Vietnam, and members of their family have served in most American wars dating back to the Civil War.
“As soon as I could say the word ‘Marine,’ I knew I wanted to join,” Wayne Duerkes says, adding that his military service “taught me to walk with my head up and take on life.”
At NIU, Duerkes has taken on as much as he can. He served as president of the History Club and helped organize a new History Open Day, a highly successful event last March that invited history faculty to promote their upcoming classes to students.
Duerkes also has taken the lead on an effort to publish an open-access journal showcasing undergraduate history research at NIU. The journal will be a part of the Huskie Commons website, with its first volume to be published in January.
“Wayne’s achievements are truly impressive,” says Beatrix Hoffman, chair of the NIU Department of History.“Under his leadership, the History Club grew dramatically and launched important projects, like the History Helpers tutoring effort and the student-run academic journal. He also mentors other students who are interested in taking leadership roles in the club. Wayne is dedicated to sharing his passion for history with the public, and the department is thrilled that his achievements have been recognized with the Lincoln Laureate award.”
“Prior to coming here, I wondered how it would be, if I was entering a young person’s world,” he says. “But you find there are just as many nontraditional students as traditional students. Everyone made me feel welcome. At the same time, even though this is such a large university, you’re never a number.”
Despite the hard economic realities of his journey, he has no regrets.
“By May of next year, I might not have a penny to my name, but I will have a degree and hopefully will be set to attend graduate school,” Duerkes says.
“My wife and kids don’t ask for much. We don’t take vacations or live high off the hog. But we have each other, and we couldn’t be happier. For us, there is that light at the end of the tunnel, and it grows bigger and brighter every day. What makes it brighter is education.”