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MAY 2004

Profiles in Education:
Anthony Drexel Duke:

Founder & President of Boys & Girls Harbor

by Dorothy Davis

Anthony Drexel Duke sat on a sofa in a beautiful Park Avenue apartment one recent sunny, spring morning, a wiry, genial octogenarian at ease with himself and his surroundings. He was elegantly dressed in a dark gray suit, the jacket of which he'd neatly folded at his side, white shirt, red patterned tie and suspenders.

“Because of the Depression I saw poverty as a boy,” he said, between sips of black coffee. “Unemployment, people on street corners selling apples supplied by the government, crowded tenements, unhappiness. It made me think how fortunate I was to live in a good house and eat good food. But when I was 19 something happened that impelled me to do all I could to help.”

It was 1937. He had just graduated from St. Paul's School in New Hampshire and was headed for Princeton in the fall. “If I tried to go to Princeton now they wouldn't accept me,” he said matter-of-factly, as he nibbled on a cookie. “It was a different era. I got in because I was a good quarterback.”

When he was 15 and still at St. Paul's he belonged to several clubs, including the Missionary Society, which ran a camp for “delinquents,” a common name then for poor immigrant boys, whom many people considered inferior. He thought it would be something different to do, rather than spending the summer on the beach in the Hamptons, so he went up to the camp as a counselor.

“There,” he said, his eyes alight, “I met some of the most interesting people you can imagine: Greeks, Irish, Germans, Yugoslavs, Italians, Poles and every nationality of Eastern Europe. They were very poor and wild, but not evil. They were a wonderful bunch! I went up there every summer for three years and was counselor for the same group of boys, and I made good friends among the counselors.”

Their last year at that camp he had a very rickety old Ford pick-up truck and decided to bring his boys home. He knew they lived in what were called slums, but he was still upset when he saw them. “I couldn't just leave them there and do nothing,” he said, “I had to do something. I had to help my boys. So I decided to start a camp for them.”

His mother, Cordelia Biddle Duke Robertson, author of the bestseller, My Philadelphia Father, encouraged him: “‘If this is what you want to do, do it!'“ She suggested he see a Mr. Tilton, who owned 600 acres on Peconic Bay in eastern Long Island, now the Morton Wildlife Preserve, which he only used in the winter. Duke leased it for a dollar a year. For a few hundred dollars more he built Duck Island Camp.

His first counselors included John Lindsay, later Mayor of New York; Paul Moore, later the Bishop of New York; Claiborne Pell, who became the U. S. Senator for whom the Pell grants are named; and Walter McVeigh, who also became a Bishop.

The boys who attended the camp became successful adults. Some came back to help with Boys and Girls Harbor. Three or four of them are still with him.

“We had three great summers before World War II. We all grew up together. Then we went off to war. Some of us got to be officers and NCOs.”

He served in the U. S. Navy from 1941 to 1946, rose to Division Commander, fought in the Battle of Normandy and the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters, winning three Battle Stars; in the Philippines and Okinawa Campaigns, earning a Bronze Star Medal.

“After the war I got some of the alumni together and they said, ‘Let's get going again!' So I started Boys Harbor.”

The Harbor Today

Boys & Girls Harbor, as it is now known, works with about 6,000 young people a year. All told it has helped more than 44,000 individuals. With an annual budget of $15-$18,000,000 it runs a year-round camp in East Hampton and a Charter School at One East 104th Street in Manhattan and offers a range of after school and weekend programs for children and their parents. Among its graduates: a New York State Supreme Court Justice, successful attorneys, business people, and professionals in many fields.

The Harbor is bursting at the seams, with a growing demand for its services; so much of Duke's time is spent fund raising to further his dream. He is just as committed to helping the poor as he was in 1937, and has a great staff in place to back him up.

And he loves what he does. “My greatest joy,” he said, “is to see some kid who didn't feel so good about him or herself when they came become a real entity in our society, and I've been lucky enough to have seen plenty of them!”

Anthony Drexel Duke is a prince of a Duke who has and is accomplishing so much for others, all because as a young boy he could not turn his back on his friends in their need.#


Boys and Girls Harbor has been very successful in helping underprivileged youth. Why is that? Here are some insights from its Founder and President Anthony Drexel Duke:

You Are World Citizens! “I teach a class called Modern History at the Harbor. We talk about what's going on in our complicated world and I get the kids thinking about how they are going to face it. I'm trying to show them the world beyond the street they live on. I tell them, ‘You are world citizens!'“

Get Real! “I tell them to get real as fast they can. Learn that real success and happiness comes from doing something that you really like to do, and do it and study hard to do it. Develop the self-confidence that comes with learning something well. Then when the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune arrive, you can stand up to them.”

The Joy of Teaching! “I would love for more people to be teachers. 10% of our staff are alumni now in their 30s who got their Masters in Education. I'm not an  intelligent person. I have ADD, have a tough time with a lot of stuff. But I can pick good people. My luckiest asset-I have been able to make friends with teachers and those who have had their heart and soul invested in working with children and doing their best by them.”

Education Update, Inc.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2005.