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A particular conversation between two runners in the stands during a track meet at Clarkstown South High school last spring couldn't have been more telling.
"What's with the voice on that guy announcing," said the younger runner, who was experiencing a Tom Doherty race call for the first time.
"Chill, that's the voice of God," the second runner, a senior, said reverently.
Well, maybe not God. It is, however, the voice that has become synonymous with track in the lower Hudson Valley, New York City and North Jersey. And, it belongs to Doherty, the former Pearl River High coach and athletic director who has been on the mike for just over 20 years, calling every meet and every event, regardless of the sport, in a manner so distinctive that many of the runners in downstate New York treat him with the reverence accorded him by the aforementioned upper classman.
What makes Doherty so distinctive is his gravelly voice. While it sounds as if he's spent a lifetime smoking cigarettes and drinking scotch, his voice is mostly the work of nature. He's had two surgeries to remove polyps from his vocal chords and has never had a cigarette or sampled whiskey.
"The guy the old timers compare me to most is the old Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most," said Doherty, 71, who had a heart attack in 1990, a quadruple bypass in 2001 and other heart procedures in 2007, 2014 and 18. "I wouldn't know what Scotch tastes like, though, and I've never had a cigarette. I was born this way."
While the recent generations of runners in the tri-state area know Doherty for his voice, he has meant so much more to the track and field community since beginning his teaching, coaching and administrative careers at Pearl River in 1969. Doherty began as a student teacher at Pearl River before becoming a physical education teacher in the middle and high schools. He had become a health teacher by 1982, when he was named the school's athletic director, a position he held until his retirement in 2003.
His impact on the track community was felt throughout the 70s and early 80s, when he coached some of the great Pirate cross country and track teams. He started out as the seventh- and eighth-grade coach before taking over the reins as the boys' varsity coach in 1973. He took a team of less than 20 and built it into a Rockland County powerhouse, going 10-0 in 1976 and 77 while winning county titles. His teams took the Section 9 Class B titles in 1977 and 78 and from 1976-78, his teams were 29-1 in dual meets.
"In the spring of 1973 I had been doing the seventh and eighth grades and I was going up to the high school to be the assistant coach," Doherty said. "The day the season started the head coach quit so I come walking into the first day of practice and the AD says 'Congratulations Tom, you're the head coach'. We were 0-10 that year.
"I didn't know how to coach but I knew how to recruit. We went 3-7 the next year and then we had the breakthrough. We were 10-0 in dual meets those years and dual meets were a big deal then."
Doherty also took over as the Pirates' cross country coach in 1978 and the results the team produced remain the standard by which all others are judged in Rockland County. His 1978 squad won the New York State Class B and New York State Federation championships that year. Pearl River placed 1-2-4-4 in the Federation meet that year and also ran the fastest five-man average ever recorded at Bear Mountain State Park [15:19] in the 1978 Section 9 meet. The Pirates won the State Class B crown again in 1980 and were named as an honorable mention All-American team.
"That was the best four years I had a Pearl River," Doherty said of coaching the cross country team. "Man did I love that. Once I became AD, though, I never coached again. I didn't think you could do both [effectively]."
Doherty never strayed far from the track, though. He is a certified official in New Jersey, where he lives, and is an unofficial official in New York in addition to his announcing duties.
"I do whatever they need me to do," Doherty said of his work in New York. "I never became certified in New York but along the way, I have helped out [Section 1 conference track coordinator and former Suffern High coach] Ralph Coleman. I call him the Section 1 track czar and I am one of his minions. Whatever he needs, I'll do. I was down at The Armory [recently] helping him and last night I was setting up kids for relays at the Bergen County Relays."
It's been a varied and successful career for Doherty, who attended Manhattan College but didn't run there. His running career ended after he graduated from Bishop Reilly High School [now St. Francis Prep] in his native Queens. He ran track and cross country at Bishop Reilly but college was a whole other animal.
"I didn't run at Manhattan because I wasn't good enough," Doherty said. "Plus, my first year at Manhattan, I was still living in new York City and I had to take a bus and three subway trains just to get there. In the summer of my freshman year, we moved to Park Ridge [New Jersey] and I got a full-time job at the St. Agnes Home and School for boys in Sparkill [N.Y.]. I was a childcare worker there for a hundred bucks a week and free room and board. I took care of 25 kids. I would get up, bring them to breakfast and when they went to school, I went to school."
Doherty also started a track team at St. Agnes and it was through the track team that he met and began his friendship with Coleman, who took over running the squad after Doherty graduated and went to work at Pearl River.
"Tom is all about service to the kids," Coleman, 68, said. "He's always been looking at the overall picture. When he was the coach of the Pearl River team, with him it wasn't about what's good for the Pearl River team but what's good for the county we compete in. He created the Pearl River Holiday Festival. Tom started that first indoor invitational so the kids had a meet to compete in.
"Basically as an AD at Pearl River he did everything related to cross country and track for Rockland County. When he retired he didn't have an official capacity but he continued to work at all the meets and gradually transitioned into announcing.
Doherty's work at St. Agnes provided him with some lifelong friendships and laid the groundwork for what would become a very successful career on many different fronts. While Doherty is still announcing some meets, he has cut back a great on his schedule. He says he is "semi-retired" and is enjoying spending time with his grandchildren, adding that maybe he has another year or two left before he packs it in completely.
"I'm getting near the finish line," Doherty said. "This might be my last year or the following year. A lot of prep work goes into it [announcing]. You have to go back, do research and my priorities have changed. Maybe by the end of the year I'll be doing half as much as I have done in past years.
"I had this thing here that I wanted to be a PE teacher and a coach and with that part I lucked out. I worked at Pearl River for 34 years and it was the only fulltime job I ever had."
It was a job that helped him become one of the mainstays in the lower Hudson Valley track community for nearly a half century.