Duke University: The Harvard of the South ( And other Sobriquets)

The Harvard of the South

When I became a member of the Southampton Golf Club it was known as “The one down the road from Shinnecock.” When I went to Medical School at Tufts University in Boston, it was known as “One of the other two Boston Medical Schools.” And when I went to college at Duke University in 1965, it was known as “The Harvard of the South.”

It’s a good thing I do not have a thin skinned inferiority complex, or I might have thought my life to be nothing better than a series of second bests and near misses, both in educational as well as in social venues.

In point of fact, akin to undeveloped real estate that eventually becomes unobtainable once it has been “discovered,” both my golf club and that “other” Medical School eventually became quite desirable and unattainable in their own respective rights. At present, one cannot get into either of them without knowing or blowing someone with inside connections.

As a curious footnote, when in the early 1980s golf was still a sport predominantly enjoyed by blue blooded American gentry but not yet passionately embraced on a national level; even Shinnecock had its precarious moment as it narrowly escaped becoming no better than a desiccated raisin in the sun.

The course was a non-irrigated tract of wispy, windblown fescue, not quite qualifying as a true links course because it is some distance from the seaside. It also happened to be hovering on the brink of receivership because of an ambivalent lack of interest by a sparse population of part time local high-society patrons who were the only denizens able to afford playing the silly sport. Everyone else had to eek out a marginal living by farming, clamming, fishing, waiting tables or being in any other kindred service related businesses that only ran from May through September.

The waiting list for membership was a mere six months, while the fees were only a few thousand dollars, including the initiation cost. Yet despite what essentially equated to a red carpet invitation to join, the club practically had to beg people to even consider it.

Several members of our current hospital medical staff took the opportunity to sign on and are now envied as much as those foresighted people who bought property in the Hamptons when an acre on the ocean went for about $10,000. Today there is no land left to buy, the prices fetch six to nine figures; even in some cases just for a knockdown 1950s bungalow like the one my father is currently living in.

On a parallel track, the Shinnecock waiting list is now infinitely long, the startup cost is not disclosed, and when finding a sponsor, it no longer really matters who you know, because in this day and age everyone knows someone. Local legend has it that even the President of the United States would have to be parked on the member waiting list; especially so if he happened to be a Democrat.The same thing holds true for the National Golf Links, The Maidstone Club and the Easthampton Yacht Club, where being a member’s progeny is just about the only thing warranting an entrée.

You see, everything is either relative or it just boils down to whoever happens to be your relative.

Add to this category the prestigious Duke University and the equally reputable Tuft-New England Medical Center. Duke University currently enjoys a superior reputation for undergraduate and graduate work. It also had a curious reputation for pioneering research in the paranormal, although in retrospect this was more likely to be a pseudonym for clandestine CIA brain function and mental telepathy study projects.

It has fine colleges in Medicine, Law, and Engineering and with its world famous Rice Diet, was also one of the first institutions to mainstream the catastrophic implicative importance of obesity and weight loss. This was decades before the rest of America began eating itself to death, before obesity was a pathetic anomaly instead of being the norm, and well before fasting was something reserved for penitence during Lent.

It is also an institution that is situated in the middle of nowhere, being just down the road from Durham, North Carolina, a city which at the time I enrolled had nothing much to offer except for its local poverty, tobacco processing and cigarette manufacturing factories.

Alumni boast the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Nixon, while the institution’s general notoriety has not been undiminished by its repeatedly stellar NCAA basketball teams, led by the only college basketball coach ever to be widely recognized by a single letter. Coach K.

As a small digression, there is a reason that this particular moniker, and for that matter sports monikers in general, do not require an elaborate academic explanation for their creation. The practice is quite simply rooted in a pernicious tendency for sport casters to combine sloth, ignorance, or esoteric sensationalism with an overarching inspiration to create nicknames.

This is a habit that panders to their equally lazy, ignorant, or cult focused audiences, the” fans,” who then tend to think of it all as sports sophistication.

For example we have:

Catfish, Tiger, The Juice, Dr. J., The Bambino, The Big Unit, Air, Flo-Jo, The Bus, The Mailman, The Golden Bear, The Say Hey Kid, Gronk and The Splendid Splinter: to name just a few.

Why these elite and universally recognized people have to be identified by a sobriquet remains to be fully explained, but probably parallels the WASP habit of nicknaming; which I have previously explained simply as: “nobody can figure out why.”

In a similar vein, it can certainly pose both significant pronunciation as well as spelling errors when sport broadcasting mavens are presented with names that seem to be composed of only consonants. It is akin to a school child who  struggles along with spelling, then in giving up on the difficult words, throws the school binder to the bottom of a drawer, and begins the long walk down the road to functional illiteracy.

So too, the sportscaster will tend to take the easy way out, and with the brainwashed fans gleefully following his lead, will then proceed to finalize the process by making the abbreviated names or nicknames into secret cult code words. Or in a similar vein to Bill Clinton’s testimony regarding the Lewinsky affair:

  • You can’t possibly say you don’t know who Coach K. is.
  • That depends on what the definition of K, is.

Or the sublimely and extremely esoteric example of having referred to the Temple basketball star, Bill Mlkvy, as “The Owl Without a Vowel.”

Trust me on this one, because having lived in Polish immigrant farm country for nearly three decades, if it had not been for the fact of inanely repetitive television broadcasting, and until the point that they finally got it right, the famous Boston Red Sox from Bridgehampton would probably have been forever known simply as Carl Y.

At least is his case they were finally able to boil his name down to a simple three letter ‘Yaz, ‘ whereas unfortunately for Coach K., his name contains just one two few vowels and simply cannot be salvaged; or if his demeanor was not so calm he might be known as Coach Krazy; akin to the current fans.

Imagine myself going through the identical situation when I dated someone with the last name Ratyjyczyk. In lieu of being in the avant-garde of the soon to come male chauvinist pig phenomenon, when making introductions by simply referring to her as “The Pole With the Hole,”, it was rather because of superlative memory training in medical school, combined with retention of a few basic manners, that I made it into a mnemonic rhyme instead. After that I never got the spelling wrong: R-A / T-Y / J-Y / Cz-Y / K    You see, it can be done.

More to the subject at hand, Duke was founded in the early 1800s by Methodist and Quaker families, becoming Trinity College when a deal was struck whereby the college would give free education to Methodist preachers in exchange for financial support from the church. It eventually moved from rural Randolph County, N.C. to Durham, in order to imbue it with an “urban” flavor, although I do not understand why Durham could even remotely have been or even yet be considered urban.

At that time a unique research library was opened under the guidance of John F. Crowell, after which Washington Duke and Julian Carr then generously funded the new school from profits made in tobacco. In 1878, Washington Duke linked the remainder of his donations to the contingency that women be admitted on an equal footing with men; a somewhat rare and radical thought for his time. Bravo and kudos to you, Washington.

Eventually, the Men and Women’s campuses were separated by about a mile, as the Men’s school moved to a new West campus.

Perhaps the founding fathers felt by creating this geographic gender separation, that undesirable and potentially scandalous premarital copulation with the East Campus vestal virgins would be held to a minimum. These being the same corporate tobacco czars who while believing that no man would consider walking a mile for a woman, if he happened to be a nicotine addict, would think nothing of walking ten miles for a Camel. This relative value question should be posed to any man who hasn’t had sex in a month or so, albeit not to the few hard-core nicotine junkies who would in fact rather smoke a cigarette than  get laid.

In any event, because of ongoing support from the Duke family, the institution was able to attract faculty from the great northern schools such as Johns Hopkins and Columbia, and by WW I, had transformed itself into one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the country.

Washington Duke’s son, James, eventually created the Duke endowment in 1924 with a 40 million dollar trust fund that seeded the development of a university on the new West campus and progressively thereafter the schools of Medicine. Law, Nursing, Forestry, Engineering, Religion and Business were opened.

The school was renamed after the Duke family when James agreed to this as a request by the University president, William Few being contingent only on the fact that the school be a memorial to his father and to his family. Apparently that deal was a no-brainer. For 40 million dollars, I would even change my own name.

Other more colorful local legend has it that James B. Duke originally solicited Princeton and offered the money to their Board of Governors, contingent on the fact that Princeton re-names itself Duke University. When the Princeton Board of Governors politely refused, James is said to have returned to Durham where he built the new West Campus on a Gothic architectural style and design pattern that Princeton claims he directly plagiarized from its own hallowed halls.

This is undoubtedly nothing more than Princeton sour grapes, because the architecture of Duke University far and away surpasses that of Princeton, as does its current academic reputation. Perhaps Princeton instead should now refer to itself as the Duke of the North.

Truthfully speaking, I believe the legend to be a mere vehicle for Duke to spite the condescending or patronizing attitudes that were promulgated by the arrogant northern colleges and by those individuals who never truly believed that the South could actually ever rise again, nor for that matter to ever be able to compete on any level. However in this day and age academic excellence at Duke, coupled with a predictably lethal national basketball program, is a combination that is difficult to cursively dismiss when it comes to consistently attracting talent on every level.

All legend and folklore aside, the entrance to Duke University is beautifully engineered in a way that forces one to enter the main campus via a small traffic circle that diverts traffic into a long driveway. The circular driveway entrance is elevated above the level of the campus such that as one enters the drive the visual graphic becomes the Duke Chapel as the distant centerpiece of the roadway. Initially being at eye level, it then ascends progressively skyward as one slowly descends toward the center of the university.

It is a breathtakingly awe inspiring sight, and one I am sure that prompted many students to commit, and then to and fall in love with Duke at first sight. It certainly happened to me when I made my first trip around that circle and entered the long seductive, sloping drive leading down to the large flat mall that then splendidly splays itself out in front of those tall, majestic medieval Gothic spires.

As a sight that never grows old, it remains as one of those memories that is permanently etched in the frontal lobe of my brain. I told my mother when I saw the Chapel that there was no doubt in my mind this was going to be my college.



DUke university
© Photo from Duke University Gift Collection Catalogue: Volume 21 issue 1 2003-2004


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