Published: Aug 21, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Aug 19, 2012 02:58 PM
Years ago, around 40 to be exact, when Duke Medical Center was just starting to balloon out from Davison Building, some of us figured the doctors were starting a flanking maneuver to surround the rest of the university.
So little did we know.
Since then, the balloon has kept expanding like the universe itself and, far from enveloping Methodist Flats, it’s colonized all over the place. Looked up at the Durham Centre lately? Where it used to say “People’s Security” up top it now says “Duke Clinical Research Institute.”
It’s enough to make a Carolina man paranoid, and it smacks a little bit of Napoleon crowning himself emperor when the Pope wasn’t fast enough. And it’s not just medicine and it’s not just downtown, but that DU brand on what some of us still think of as Franklin Wittenberg’s tower where the Amoco station used to be stamps a figurative exclamation point on the ubiquitous presence of Buck Duke in the old hometown he left in 1884. Even if the law wouldn’t let him smoke his cigar any more.
Time was, and not too long ago, the names on Durham’s skyline were “CCB” (or “Durham Bank and Trust”) and “Chesterfield.” The town was over here going to work and the college was over there minding its own business, or at least it seemed that way. Now, with offices and clinics from Independence Park at the north to Renaissance Center by Southpoint, the Devils’ own charitable institution (full disclosure: class of ’70) is everywhere.
Truth to tell, though, Duke, even in its former life as Trinity College, has been woven into our town ever since Bull Durham tycoon Julian Shakespeare Carr joined the board of trustees in 1883 and went on to help lure the school to Durham with a gift of Blackwell Park – a horse-race track Carr picked up when his former tobacco partner W.T. Blackwell went bankrupt.
Carr’s daughter, Lalla Ruth, was the driving force behind starting the Durham Public Library, but it was Trinity professor Edwin Mims who suggested the idea in the first place. Trinity professor John Spencer Basset led the first collecting of Durham lore (cf. “Old Durham Traditions,” Historical Society of Trinity College, 1906). Law Dean Justin Miller led the committee that drew up the first unsuccessful plan for city-county merger, in 1932.
When Atlantic Monthly profiled Durham in April 1940, most of the story extolled how Duke had brought culture to a Southern town remarkably more given to money-making than worshipping the Lost Cause. And in March 1973, the Duke-born Rice Diet put Durham on Esquire’s cover with a report called “Fat City Follies.”
In times past, it was an Old Durham Tradition for old town boys to accost lone frosh abroad and administer a sound Durham thrashing. Notably, the tables were turned in 1967, when 10 young men jumped junior tackle Robin Bodkin, who put five on the ground and five on the run – an occasion so singular it was reported in Sports Illustrated (June 12, 1967, p. 27).
Ah, nostalgia. The presence of town-gown tensions is firmly entrenched in folk belief and in fact they are to some extent inevitable. Also in fact, though, Buck Duke’s college and its 30,000-paycheck contribution to the local economy are not insignificant to Durham’s well-being. To that now you can add the monthly payments on 500,000 or so square feet of leased real estate in downtown alone, the $7.5 million Duke chipped in to get DPAC built, staff time invested in depressed neighborhoods and, yes, Duke does pay some property taxes – pretty soon it adds up to something.
For some folks, “Duke” on high at Wittenberg’s tower might seem a little arrogant, but there’s reason for Duke to get on top. It could seem boastful but, as Dizzy Dean used to say, “If you can do it, it ain’t bragging.”