Boys Harbor Founder Dies at 95

Anthony Drexel Duke put his privilege to use, lifting thousands from poverty
The founder of Boys and Girls Harbor in East Hampton, Anthony Drexel Duke, right, with some of the many campers he welcomed every year. Mr. Duke died on April 30.

Anthony Drexel Duke, who as founder of the former Boys Harbor camp on Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton was a model and benefactor to generations of inner-city children, died at home in Gainesville, Fla., on April 30. He was 95 and had been diagnosed with cancer some time ago.

Mr. Duke grew up in Old Westbury, New York City, and Southampton. In the summer of 1937, after volunteering at a camp for disadvantaged city kids, he arrived in Southampton with a group of campers. With his mother’s blessing, he set up his own camp in the pool house of the family estate.

By the next summer, he had arranged to use land on Jessup’s Neck for his own camp, which led to the establishment in the 1950s of the camp at Three Mile Harbor. It grew to become Boys and Girls Harbor, a multidisciplinary education and arts organization based in Harlem that includes day care, social services, and the Harbor Science and Arts Charter School, one of the first charter schools in the state. To date, more than 50,000 young people have attended programs at the Harbor.

Mr. Duke’s attitude and belief in bringing out the best in all people was summed up in a 2007 autobiography, “Uncharted Course: The Voyage of My Life,” written with Richard Firstman, in which he commented about some of his early campers who had lived up to their reputations as troublemakers. “In some of those cases, all it took was a little care and attention to change a kid’s direction,” he wrote.

At the camp, originally only for boys, he led calisthenics and took boys aboard his boat out onto Gardiner’s Bay. He shook each boy’s hand every morning and said good night to each at night. Those celebrating birthdays were invited, with a handful of friends, to a celebration at the family house, next to the camp.

Mr. Duke’s own children became campers, and like many others went onto become counselors. Many campers went on to extraordinary lives of their own. Among them is Eduardo Padro, who earned a scholarship to Yale and became a New York State Supreme Court justice.

Mr. Duke was descended from three of the country’s wealthiest families. His mother, Cordelia Drexel Biddle, was a daughter of the Drexel family, Philadelphia bankers and founders of Drexel University there, and the Biddles, who were bankers and landowners. In 1915, she married Angier Buchanan Duke, whose family founded the American Tobacco Company in 1890.

Anthony Drexel Duke, the couple’s second child, was born on July 28, 1918. His father died in a boating accident in 1923, when he was 5, and he moved with his mother and brother from Manhattan to Cedarhurst and later to Old Westbury.

He attended St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., and then Princeton University, but left to join the Navy. During World War II, Mr. Duke commanded a landing ship, serving during the Normandy Invasion and in the Pacific. He was awarded three battle stars and a Bronze Star for his service.

After the war, Mr. Duke completed his education at Adelphi University.

“We all know he was a great man, and those of us who knew him well knew that he was a really great guy,” said his son Anthony Drexel Duke Jr. “The humanity of the man was just extraordinary.”

“He was a family man, and East Hampton was home,” said Luly Duke (Maria de Lourdes Alcebo), his wife of more than four decades, from whom he was separated. “He really made time for his children.”

The couple worked together to support the Harbor camp and hosted the annual Grucci fireworks fund-raisers that were begun by Mr. Duke’s friend George Plimpton.

After it was decided to close the camp, Mr. Duke, with his wife, worked to ensure that the land ended up in public hands. The camp site and adjacent acreage were sold to Suffolk County and the Town of East Hampton.

Mr. Duke’s first three marriages, to Alice Rutgers, Elizabeth Ordway, and Diane Douglas, ended in divorce.

From 1974 to 1996, Mr. Duke played a key role on the board and executive committee of the International Rescue Committee, for which he went on missions to help refugees in Cuba and Vietnam. In 1980, Mr. Duke and his son John, both married to sisters born in Cuba, ferried 35 Cuban refugees to the United States during the Mariel boatlift.

In 1995, he went with his wife, Luly, a Cuban-American who emigrated to this country in the early 1960s, on her first trip back to Cuba. He was moved by the plight of the Cuban people, Mrs. Duke said, and they decided that she would found a program, Fundacion Amistad, to assist Cuban children and promote positive U.S.-Cuba relations.

Throughout his life, Mr. Duke held positions at several family companies and served on the boards of many organizations, including as a founding director of the East Hampton Healthcare Foundation and as a vice chairman of the board of trustees at Duke University. That institution began as Trinity College, which was heavily endowed by Mr. Duke’s grandfather and great-uncle.

He received numerous honors including the Save the Children National Award, honorary doctorates from Duke, Drexel, Adelphi, and Long Island Universities, and several presidential citations for his leadership of Boys and Girls Harbor, including one from President Bill Clinton. He was declared a “living landmark” by the New York Landmark Conservancy.

Besides his ongoing work with the Harbor, Mr. Duke was a former commissioner of the New York City Youth Board and was active with Big Brothers, the Henry Street Settlement, and other social service groups.

Mr. Duke had lived in Bellport after leaving East Hampton some years ago, and then moved to Florida. In recent years, he had retraced the events of his life, visiting family, people, and places along with an assistant and companion, Awilda Penney. “We had a wonderful time,” Ms. Penney said.

Besides his wife, Mr. Duke is survived by 10 children. They are Lulita Duke Reed of Ross, Calif., Washington Alcebo Duke and James Buchanan Duke of East Hampton, Anthony Drexel Duke Jr. of East Norwich, Nicholas Rutgers Duke of Charlottesville, Va., John Ordway Duke of Little Torch Key, Fla., Douglas Dreel Duke of Wilmington, N.C., Cordelia Duke Jung of Berlin, Josephine Duke Brown of Petrolia, Calif., and December Duke McSherry of Gainesville, Fla.

Another son, Barclay Robertson Duke, predeceased his father.

Twenty-two grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren also survive. Mr. Duke’s brother, Angier Biddle Duke, a former U.S. ambassador and chief of protocol for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, died in 1995.

A private family funeral service will be held next week in Southampton, after which Mr. Duke’s ashes will be buried at a family cemetery plot, with a Naval Honor Guard in attendance.

A memorial celebration of Mr. Duke’s life will be held on June 2 at 4:30 p.m. at Boys and Girls Harbor in New York City. Memorial contributions have been suggested to that organization at One East 104th Street, New York City 10029.