Tony Duke (1918-2014) spent a lifetime educating children. He grew Boys & Girls Harbor, the educational and performing arts nonprofit he founded in 1937, from a small summer camp for inner-city boys to a multidisciplinary education and arts organization that serves more than 1,000 students from Harlem and surrounding communities each year.
When he established Boys & Girls Harbor (originally Boys Harbor), Tony noted that “a clear need wasn’t being filled by the city or by leading social service organizations.” His goal was to empower underprivileged children to become full, productive participants in society through education, cultural enrichment, and social services. Called “Duck Island,” the early Harbor camp was located on Jessup’s Neck, overlooking Peconic Bay on Long Island. For many years, the annual fundraising event, called “Fireworks,” was attended by the philanthropic community supporting Tony’s vision. The camp’s early counselors, all of whom were Tony’s friends and classmates, included U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, New York Mayor Robert Wagner, and Bishop Paul Moore.
In 1954, the Harbor camp moved to Three Mile Harbor, near East Hampton. Later that year, Tony established the organization’s first office on 94th street in New York City to support the campers throughout the calendar year. In 1960, Tony expanded the Harbor to include performing arts, along with tutoring and counseling programs. By the late ’70s, the Harbor moved to its current headquarters on East 104th Street and expanded yet again to include day care and social services. In 2001, it helped establish Harbor Science and Arts Charter School, one of the first charter schools in New York State. To date, more than 50,000 young people have attended the Harbor.
The values that Tony impressed upon the Harbor’s alumni were instilled in him at an early age by his mother, about whom he wrote extensively in his biography, Uncharted Course, as well as through his experiences at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and then at Princeton University.
After graduating from Princeton, Tony went on to have a distinguished career in both the military and the private sector. He served as assistant naval attaché in 1941 in Buenos Aires, as lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, as commanding officer on the USS LST-530, and as a division commander in the Battle of Normandy. He represented the International Rescue Committee on several missions during the Vietnam War and during the 1983 Mariel Refugee Crisis in Cuba. He also served on the advisory council of the U.S. Naval Academy. Tony was awarded three battle stars and a bronze star for his service.
As a professional, Tony worked for several family-owned businesses, including Duke International Import/Export Company, where he served as vice president, and A.D. Duke Realty, where he served as president. He was later appointed director of the American National Bank.
Tony’s record of civic work, like his military and professional background, reflects a commitment to serving others. He was a member of the New York City Youth Board and also its commissioner during the administration of Mayor Robert F. Wagner. He was an advocate for young people as part of the Big Brother Movement, Speedwell Services for Children, the Henry Street Settlement, and as a delegate at the International Conference on Private Sector Initiatives.
Tony’s compassion and generous gifts were widely known among New York’s charitable circles, but he was far more than just a patron. From the Harbor’s early days until a few years before his death, Tony was a fixture at the organization, developing personal relationships with Harbor staff and students. “Though I have been called a philanthropist, I never felt that word fit,” Tony said. “It suggests someone who donates wads of money from afar. I was involved in everything at the Harbor.”
Over the years, Tony had been honored with numerous awards and accolades. He was the recipient of the first James W. Rouse Civic Medal of Honor by the Enterprise Foundation, the CBS2 Fulfilling the Dream Award, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, the National Institute of Social Science Gold Medal, the National Minority Business Council Community Service Award, the Change for Kids First Lifetime Achievement Award, the Save the Children National Award, and a Metropolitan Hospital Award. Tony was also declared a “living landmark” by the New York Landmark Conservancy and received several presidential citations for the work Boys & Girls Harbor has done in the Harlem community.
Tony’s work has also been supported by countless celebrities and officials, such as Peter Jennings, Stone Phillips, President George Bush, and Liz Cho. Said President Bill Clinton of Tony’s impact, “America’s strength as a nation always has depended on individuals who have been willing to work for the common good. From his brave service in World War II to his tireless advocacy on behalf of our youth, Tony Duke has epitomized this fine tradition.”
A man of incredible integrity who sought to inspire the same in others, Tony has touched the lives of tens of thousands of young people. He has been hailed by writer and biographer Richard Firstman as “a great American success story.” Tony’s influence also extended beyond educational institutions to some of New York’s leading foundations: He sat on the boards of Duke University, the Rumsey Hall School, the International Rescue Committee, The Achelis and Bodman Foundations, the National Committee of American Foreign Policy, the New York University Child Study Center, and Duke University’s Provost Advisory Committee on International Affairs; Tony was also a founding director of the board for the East Hampton Health Care Foundation.
It was Boys & Girls Harbor, however, that was Tony’s true lifeblood. In 2011, he sold the 26-acre site of the original camp to the town of East Hampton for $7.3 million and the money was used as the “founding gift” for the Tony Duke Founder’s Path, the highest level of giving to the Harbor. In 2012, the Harbor celebrated a milestone anniversary, marking 75 years of serving students and families in Harlem and beyond. From those early days rallying friends and family to support his camp to his final days phoning in to board meetings when his health prevented him from travelling, Tony focused on ensuring that the Harbor served as a real home and learning environment for Harbor students.
“In my life, I have been fortunate to have had several families: There is my own family: my mother and father and brother and grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews, and my 11 children who’ve made me so proud, as well as their children and their children’s children,” Tony said. “There is my St. Paul’s family, there is my Navy family, and there is the largest of them all—my Harbor family. [More than] seventy-five years later, I am still close to countless Harbor alumni and regularly encounter many others who have come through over the years. I receive calls and visits all the time, and one of the pleasures of my life is walking on the street and running into someone who spent time at the Harbor as a child.” – Tony Duke