Once upon an East Hampton summer, I was a guest at a wedding reception on a flawless day.
“Tony’s here,” my mother said enthusiastically and off we were to say hello to Anthony Drexel Duke.
“You’re my hero,” I told him, and without missing a Noel Cowardesque beat, he replied, “that’s too bad.”
I have never before told anyone that they’re my hero, much less meant it, but out it slipped.
Yes, he was the epitome of heroic to me: as in epic, dauntless, valorous, and all those knights and damsels-in-distress hyperboles that usually dance in a beautifully bound book.
Tony Duke is a hero to many and will be a legendary role model for decades to come.
A handsome man with David Nivenesque looks, Tony Duke comes from a medley of three of the most socially prominent American families: the Dukes, the Biddles and the Drexels.
His family’s entourage included Charlie Chaplin, Irving Berlin, Mayor Jimmy Walker, and JFK.
Tony Duke’s four marriages produced eleven children. Boys Harbor grew into a foster family that he immersed himself in.
At the age of nineteen, Duke, a student at Princeton, founded Boys Harbor in East Hampton, New York. It was a labor of love and his own funding, which soon grew into a community of supporters.
He defined Boys Harbor as a “summer camp for immigrants and disadvantaged boys,” and recruited his friends and family as counselors. The goal was “to empower the lives of inner city young people, helping them overcome adversity as they achieve their creative intellectual and economic dreams.”
Boys Harbor moved on to Duck Harbor in Southampton. In 1941, Duke was commissioned in the Navy to serve in World War I.
Boys Harbor reopened in 1947 and settled into a permanent East Hampton home in 1954.
In 1962, a New York townhouse was added.
What impressed me the most about Boys Harbor was that Duke knew every boy by name, lived on the grounds, and included his children in the camp, showing no favoritism.
My brother spent a summer as a counselor at Boys Harbor and my father tutored there.
When my parents hosted an afternoon of lunch and swimming, I went with my father to pick up the boys. We had a station wagon, nothing showy. East Hampton was station wagons and lack of pretense at the time.
One of the boys asked my father how much he had paid for the car.
My father replied that he had “worked very hard to earn it.”
“Why would you tell him that?” My mother asked my father. “What are the odds that he’ll ever be able to afford a good car?”
“I let him know that hard work can make it happen.” My father replied.
As Boys Harbor evolved into Boys and Girls Harbor, Tony Duke’s dreams seemed to surpass themselves.
Duke summed “the Harbor” as a venue “to empower the lives of inner city young people, helping them overcome adversity as they achieve their creative intellectual and economic dreams.”
“My feeling is that if we’re going to preserve our democracy, we can’t have so many people falling through the cracks. We’ve got to give them their desserts, which is not just respect, it’s a good education.”
Today, Boys and Girls Harbor has “created programs that include pre-school, extended day tutoring, literacy training, substance abuse prevention, college preparation, workforce readiness, and a conservatory for the performing arts.”
Thank you, Tony Duke, for being you! It just doesn’t get any better.
Featured image courtesy of Hamptons.com