It seems that everyone that Tony Duke met, or whose lives he touched, was personally touched, and with lasting effect. Because that’s what kind of man Tony was. The founder of the Boys Harbor camp on Three Mile Harbor, who died on April 30 at 95, was warm and genuine and courtly, sincerely interested in others, and a gentleman who exuded an infectious joie de vivre. You walked away from an encounter with him feeling just so much better about life, yourself, and the world. He was handsome and caring, and dedicated himself to doing good.
But of course, all of this has been said, over years, and said again since his death. He had a rich and fulfilling life, and the sadness now is, for most of us, that the world is minus one more of those kinds of people who really, truly, make it a better place.
Mr. Duke’s got plenty of descendants — 10 children survive, and the numerous grandchildren and greats stemming from them — so it’s not for me, a mere acquaintance among many, to extol his qualities, more than I already have.
But beyond the remarkable nature of the man are the many extraordinary occasions of his life. Described in his autobiography, published in 2007 with a co-writer, Richard Firstman, are a mind-bending series of adventures and tales that, as I read and re-read the book before writing a review of it for The Star, had me shaking my head as incredible experiences piled up and up.
Tony Duke had a cattle ranch in Dutchess County, and a military surplus business. He speculated in real estate in Florida, the Bahamas, and in Cuba where, in the bar of the Hotel Nacional with one of his sons, he witnessed one of Fidel Castro’s officers pull out a gun and shoot a colonel in Fulgencio Batista’s army in the head.
He ferried refugees from Cuba to Florida aboard his boat during the Mariel boatlift, went on missions to Vietnam and Cuba for the International Rescue Committee, and even was rumored to play a role in some hush-hush, high-level international intrigue.
Driving in the Austrian countryside in 1934, when he was 16, his party was briefly commandeered by a squad of young Nazis, locked in a bakery cellar, and caught in a gunfight between Hitler’s men and the Austrians fighting them.
Two years earlier, in the Munich opera house during a Wagner performance, he had been seated behind Hitler himself, and, he says in the book, speculated later how the course of history might have been changed had he reached out and used some of the hand-to-hand combat techniques that his grandfather had taught him.
He commanded a Navy landing craft at Normandy and was a division commander in Okinawa; was a Naval intelligence officer in Argentina prior to Pearl Harbor, and sailed and lunched with J.F.K.
His family stories are also rich: As a young man, he met his parents’ friends, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Cole Porter, Charlie Chaplin, to name a few. Reaching back, his family members were colorful and influential characters: Wall Street titans, newspaper, university, and corporate founders, and players in world affairs.
His uncle, Tony Biddle, was a United States ambassador and adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reporting on the early stirrings of Nazism and the plight of the European Jews, and his brother, Angier Biddle Duke, became an ambassador as well. There was always, it seems, a family culture of philanthropy.
One Drexel relative, a nun who used her fortune to help others, was canonized in 2000.
Notwithstanding all that, Boys and Girls Harbor, the Harlem-based charter school, performing arts, enrichment, and social service organization that grew out of the camp he established in his teenage years, was his crowning achievement.
Tony Duke parlayed an acquaintance with Brooke Astor into the purchase of the Harbor’s first home base, then met head-on and deflected members of the Black Panther Party who questioned the Harbor’s mission in their neighborhood.
More than 50,000 young people have attended the Harbor’s programs to date, and its founder was actively involved, connected to the huge family of Harbor folks, and dedicated to the mission to the end.
So many who attended or volunteered for Harbor programs — often one and the same — have spoken of their lasting positive influence.
Tony had a definite influence on me, beyond the spring in my step after seeing him. Because I love fireworks, I was drawn to the annual fund-raisers for Boys Harbor featuring a midsummer Grucci Fireworks show, attending the parties held at the Duke house next to the camp. Being close to the epicenter of the show, shot up from a barge anchored nearby, and hearing the music in sync and the narration about the various fireworks shells deepened my interest.
Finally, a couple of years ago, after a day spent observing and interviewing the barge crew during set-up, I learned about a training course for pyrotechnicians and signed up.
Since then, as a woman of some decades (let’s say, considerably older than most of the young, male fireworks crews), involved in the excitement of a couple of fireworks shows from start to finish — especially the one I shot, with my own pointer finger, pressing the electronic buttons as the chief pyrotechnician uttered, “Fire,” “Fire,” “Fire,” the reflections of explosive flames flashing on the ocean waves — I have, perhaps, racked up a story or two a teensy bit along the lines of Tony Duke’s.
So the next time I’m standing under the comets and stars raining down, the trailing bright peonies and chrysanthemums, amid the heart-quickening booms and sparks, it will be Tony I will be thinking of, with admiration and love. And the least I can do, in his shadow, is to strive for his verve, and live an interesting life.
Joanne Pilgrim, an associate editor for The Star, is also a fledgling pyrotechnician.