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Louisvillian rowed boat ashore, hasn't stopped

LOUISVILLE — When Tori Murden stepped onto dry land for the first time in 81 days in December 1999, she also stepped into the fleeting glow of curiosity and celebrity.

If you're 36 years old and have just written the first line of your eventual obituary — "Tori Murden, the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean" — there's a reasonable expectation that the rest of your life might be reduced to a footnote.

But the 6-foot-tall adventurer, lawyer, minister, college vice president — and, now, author — has led a very lively life since she rowed 3,333 miles from the Canary Islands to land on Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean.

Five weeks later, she got married. Her book A Pearl in the Storm, which came out in early April, recalls her proposal, which she made by phone from the American Pearl, the 23-foot boat she was rowing across the Atlantic.

Murden: "When I get out of this rowboat, will you marry me?"

Her intended, Mac McClure: "Sure. Why not?"

They had met a year earlier, at a Rotary luncheon where Tori gave a speech.

"She noticed me," Mac said, "because of my tweed coat, nice tie, button-down Oxford-cloth shirt, blue jeans — and green garden clogs." (The now retired executive director of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest would sometimes leave a forest or park for dress-up functions without completing the wardrobe change.)

She invited him to be her date for Louisville Mayor Dave Armstrong's inaugural ball.

Tori Murden McClure probably doesn't fit the profile of a Rotary luncheon speaker. She's a vegetarian who didn't have a driver's license until she was 24. She got around on a bicycle. Her first car was a Renault. The second was a Chevy with a faulty starter. She parked on hills so she could jump in, get the car rolling and fire it up.

Why not just buy a new starter?

"She never had any money," Mac said. "Her grandfather left her some money, and she used it for college and graduate school."

She gets about in a small SUV these days. But she's more likely to be moving under her own power — on water and land.

"I can row forever," said McClure, now 46. "Rowing's one of those sports like swimming you do your entire life."

She climbs mountains — she was on Mount Rainier last August.

And she juggles.

Balls. And jobs. And identities.

Her friend Luckett Davidson said she thinks of McClure first as "a lifelong crusader for truth and justice, then as an athlete, then as a scholar, then as a boat builder, then as a general handywoman/Ms. Fixit. 'Adventurer' comes far on down the line."

Since 2004, McClure has worked at Spalding University, in downtown Louisville. She described the place as "a scrappy institution that's doing some really good stuff, very much under the radar. We've been around for almost 200 years, and the majors here are all service-oriented, community-oriented."

What provoked an Amazon/adventurer/attorney/academic to add "administrator" to her résumé?

"Spalding seems to fit everything that I've done up to this moment," she said. "I get to use all my voices. I'm a lawyer one minute and a divinity graduate the next."

Yes. She holds a master's degree in divinity (Harvard '89) and a law degree (Louisville '95).

And as vice president, she occasionally gets to decide whether Spalding will close for a snow day.

This is a woman who skied 750 miles to the South Pole — in temperatures averaging 25 degrees below zero — so you're probably thinking she's not about to go easy on a bunch of college softies. But she has actually declared a snow day at Spalding.

Doubtless this runs against the public perception of her as some sort of daredevil.

"Contrary to what one might think, I would not describe Tori as a big risk-taker," friend Margaret Handmaker said. "She prepares carefully and executes thoroughly. I would say that about her whether she was rowing across an ocean or giving a speech."

She gives a lot of speeches, especially to non-profit groups.

"Her most fun thing to do is to talk to the Governor's Scholars. She's done it for nine years," her husband said. "She takes her medals (won in competition and awarded by organizations). She drops them on the floor and says, 'These are meaningless. The important things in life are the gut-wrenching things that are around us every day, (and) you all are the ones that have the brain power to step up and solve them.' ''

She has spent time in the trenches. She ran a center for homeless women and children in Louisville. She worked at a homeless shelter in Boston. She was chaplain at Boston City Hospital, where more than 90 percent of the patients were uninsured. It left an imprint.

"I've observed something in her that always makes me think of her in this role as a hospital chaplain," Handmaker said. "She is respectful and a really good listener. She hears what isn't said."

And now, with her book, McClure said what she had not said before: Rowing across the ocean was her attempt to face — and defeat — helplessness.

McClure's notion of helplessness — and her rage against it — dates to her youth. The Murden family lived in Pennsylvania, where her father, Al, was a professor of education at California University of Pennsylvania. One of her brothers, Lamar, was learning-disabled, and Tori was his protector, which resulted in many fights.

Eventually, the fighting led school administrators to suggest she look for a private school. So in 1978, at age 15, she moved to Louisville, where her grandmother and older brother, Duke, lived, and she enrolled in Louisville Collegiate School.

"I've sort of judged my life in two phases — BC and AC — Before Collegiate and After Collegiate," she said.

In Louisville, everything changed. The first time a confrontation brewed, her would-be opponent declared, "I'm not going to fight you."

This was a revelation, and a relief, she said — "it just didn't occur to me that there were places where people didn't beat each other up."

Richard Hudson, dean of students at Spalding, is among those who have trouble speaking of "helplessness" when it comes to McClure.

"In another life, Tori was Spartacus," Hudson said — but not just Spartacus.

"She is," he says, "an awesome study in contradictions — simultaneously irreverent and respectful, cool and nerdy, tough and empathetic, a jock and a bookworm. Trying to describe Tori is rather like trying to describe the wind."

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