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The Timid Generation
William Johnson
March 11, 1968
The popular view is that youth is in revolt, but a look at Duke University suggests that a professor there, Jack Preiss (right), is closer to the truth: quiet anxiety is the prevailing mood
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March 11, 1968

The Timid Generation

The popular view is that youth is in revolt, but a look at Duke University suggests that a professor there, Jack Preiss (right), is closer to the truth: quiet anxiety is the prevailing mood

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A John Harvard he was not, but a stout, brimstone-bred Methodist Buck Duke did remain—at least on the surface. Oh, there was a nasty divorce scandal in 1906 involving his wife and a 66-year-old socialite who was president of a mineral-water bottling company, and the fact that Duke himself peddled tobacco for profit did not endear him to many old-line Methodists in the church. Yet, it had long been Duke policy to be sure that there was a Methodist church near every cigarette factory the company built, and for years the Duke philanthropies—including those of Buck's daddy, Washington, and his older brother, Benjamin—had been used to fund such charities as backwoods Methodist churches, orphanages and aid to retired preachers and their families. And, of course, little Trinity College.

The origins of the school can be traced back to the 1830s, when some Quakers and Methodists in central North Carolina built a log cabin and hired a schoolmaster for $200 a year and all the firewood he could burn. In 1892 the whole college simply packed up and moved 65 miles to the snuff-cigar-cigarette-and-chawin'-tobacco center of Durham. It seemed an odd choice at the time for a straitlaced little church school, because Durham was known to be full of sin and tobacco dust; but old Washington Duke had donated $85,000 to underwrite the transfer, and that was good cause enough to move.

A lot of people at Duke nowadays tend to refer to their school as being "young," largely because they consider it to have been born full-blown from Buck Duke's moneybags. If you ask about famous alumni, the usual samples offered are Richard Nixon, who went to the law school only, and Author William Styron, who was ordered to Duke as a World War II V-12 student. But little old Trinity had its great men and great moments, too. Samuel F. Mordecai, the renowned legal scholar, was the first dean of its law school; James Killian, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a student at Trinity in the early '20s; and four Trinity alumni have served as U.S. Senators.

It was also Trinity College that won one of the first intercollegiate football games ever played south of the Mason-Dixon line, a Thanksgiving Day event in 1888 in which the Methodists defeated the University of North Carolina 16-0. In 1891 Trinity not only went undefeated and untied—something that Duke has never managed—but the team also racked up the highest single-game score in Trinity-Duke history, annihilating Furman University 96-0, a total that included one touchdown by the town depot agent, who played center. Four years later football was banned at the school because of "professionalism" (a charge that apparently had some merit). Trinity also played the first basketball game held in North Carolina—against Wake Forest—in 1906. Even the name Blue Devils predates Duke. In 1922 some of the livelier students on campus decided that any team known by such meek nicknames as The Methodists or The Blue and White was starting off with one foot in defeat. At the time, the school was full of doughboy-veterans who much admired a particularly efficient French fighting outfit called Les Chasseurs Alpins and nicknamed the Blue Devils. The college paper started calling the team Blue Devils, and today even North Carolina Methodists have gotten used to it.

But it is Dec. 11, 1924, the day Buck Duke's money officially created The Duke Endowment, that people tend to consider as the real birthday of the school, proving once again that fortunes talk louder than heritage in the annals of American success. There are separate boards of trustees for the university and for the $614 million endowment itself, which includes other recipients (orphanages, Methodist ministers, hospitals, Davidson College and Furman and Johnson C. Smith universities). Although Duke is generally considered to be filthy rich, it ranks no higher than 29th among colleges in total endowment ( Harvard is first, University of Texas second). Nevertheless, around campus it is the trustees of the endowment, rather than the university, who are referred to as The Big Board, because ultimately they dictate the university's big-money policies.

There has been scurrilous talk over the years—notably in Europe, where the American millionaire is viewed as a cross between Machiavelli and King Tut—that Buck Duke built his university because his son had flunked out of Yale and Daddy wanted him in a school he could call his own. That is not true, because Buck Duke had just one offspring, a daughter named Doris, who was called The Richest Girl in the World before most tabloid readers ever heard of Barbara Hutton. Some people also insist that Duke tried to donate all his money to Princeton University on the major condition that the trustees change the name to Duke-Princeton or, if they absolutely insisted, merely to Princeton-Duke; but that, too, is generally pooh-poohed as apocryphal.

Duke's admiration for Princeton is obvious in the look of the university he ordered up. Although he died in 1925 before work had really begun, his wishes were clear, and by 1930 an ant colony of carpenters, stonecutters, stained-glass-window designers and quadrangle landscapers had transformed a section on the outskirts of Durham (roughly a mile west of the original Trinity campus) into Duke's dream.

It is a perfectly lovely place, though if you know its rush-order origins you can't help but feel that the beauty of it all is a bit self-conscious. The basic design is rigid Gothic gingerbread set on drafting-board quadrangles of green, all loomed over by a chapel centerpiece that has 77 stained-glass windows, a 50-bell carillon and a suitably soaring tower patterned after Canterbury Cathedral in England. New buildings are not in the same instant-ancient mold, and the architectural style ranges from brick-industrial to a kind of modern Gothic that is not at all unbecoming. The campus seems to be in a state of almost perpetual construction, and President Knight has launched a $102.8 million fund-raising campaign that will serve to finance a progressive look on campus—both architecturally and academically—for a long time to come. The original Trinity location, called East Campus, is mostly Georgian architecture, and the dorms there are for girls, who are called East Beasts.

While his university was still just a philanthropic idea, Duke said: "It will start as a completed thing. Other universities have had to grow piecemeal; we are ready to start a fully planned, completely coordinated plant." Within a short time after the name change, a hymn to Dear Old Duke was composed to create instant lumps in throats: And tho' on life's broad sea / Our fates may far us bear / We'll ever turn to thee / Our Alma Mater dear. A nice sober Latin slogan was adopted: Eruditio et Religio (cynics enlarged it to read, Eruditio et Religio et Cherooto et Cigaretto). There was a bit of absurdio, too, in a pair of statues that are still second only to the chapel as campus focal points. One portrays Buck Duke, nearly as bald as a basketball, wearing a baggy suit, leaning on a cane and, yes, holding a cigar in one upraised hand. The other statue is of Buck's daddy, "Old Man Wash," seated in a chair, with legs crossed and looking for all the world like a wrinkled, aged pelican who has just swallowed all the kingfish in his river.

Over the years things have gone well for Buck Duke's university. And even though it may not be exactly seething with youthful dissent over materialism, war or even air pollution, the caliber of its formal education can scarcely be knocked. Yet as its standards of scholarship have gone up and up and up, some of the zing has gone, too, of the good old years when a college education was seen as something more—or maybe less, depending on one's viewpoint—than a commodity for economic survival. Something of the spirit is missing; maybe even a phrase as corny as "that old school spirit" is apt.

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