There are two kinds of underdog battles we confront in life. There’s the kind we courageously choose to fight. And there’s the kind that cruelly choose us.
John Duncan knew both kinds. The son of small-town Texas, Duncan was born in Haskell in 1936. He was captain of the football team in his senior year. He earned an economics degree from Austin College, where he was on the track team.
He went on to advanced studies in New Orleans at Tulane University. He later was on the faculty at his alma mater and at Texas Tech University, where he taught economics and “price theory,” which I think is the theory that everything is priced just above what you can afford.
While at Tech, he was elected president of the Texas Civil Liberties Union. In 1974, he moved to Austin and took the reins as TCLU’s executive director. It was in that post that I got to know Duncan and his low-key nature, similar sense of humor and distinctive smile.
As the point man for TCLU, Duncan won each and every battle he fought at the Capitol. No, he didn’t.
Remember what I told you about the underdog battles we courageously choose to fight? There aren’t too many longer-shot interest groups at the Texas Capitol than the TCLU.
So, in a manner that won him respect of his foes, Duncan learned to take pleasure in small victories, small victories that over the years have added up to significant ones as Texas continues to evolve.
After leaving TCLU in the mid-1980s, Duncan remained a presence in state government, including a stint as director of then-Comptroller Bob Bullock’s legislative analysis group. Anyone who ever worked for Bullock understands that in that post you could be an underdog on any given day, depending upon on which side of the bed Bullock woke up and perhaps the quality and quantity of liquids he’d consumed prior to climbing into that bed.
Bullock’s mercurial style and Duncan’s calm demeanor were a surefire recipe either for success or sitcom.
In 1989, Duncan moved to the Public Utility Commission where he was executive assistant to Commissioner Jo Campbell. (Sports fan trivia: Campbell’s brother is Dave Campbell, longtime publisher of “Dave Campbell’s Texas Football,” which has been a holy book for football fans ever since God created football, which I believe was on the second day).
Duncan later served as executive assistant to then-Public Utility Commission Chairman Robert Gee.
On the home front, Duncan, who had one child from a previous marriage, married Austin lawyer and force of nature Becky Beaver on Jan. 1, 1976, and they had twin sons in 1988. Duncan retired in 1997 and went into 24/7 dad mode, including, as someone recalled, “driving carpools while tormenting their friends with his incessant puns.” FYI, that’s exactly what a dad is supposed to do while driving carpools.
In 2002, Duncan’s next underdog battle, the one that cruelly chose him, began. Three years later, he was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2011, my colleague Pam LeBlanc, always in search of stories about the improbable notion that fitness and exercise can make a difference, wrote an inspiring story about Duncan’s exercise routine.
“John Duncan jogs around Lady Bird Lake two mornings a week, a personal trainer at his side,” the story began. “Gravel crunches under his sneakers as he plods along, shielding his eyes from the streaming sunlight.”
“Duncan’s marathon days are far behind him. He doesn’t remember crossing the finish line at the Boston, Chicago or New York City marathons 25 years ago. Alzheimer’s disease has stolen those moments,” LeBlanc wrote. “But exercising with a trainer has helped him cope with the frustrations and symptoms that come with his illness.”
LeBlanc detailed how Duncan, then 74, worked with personal trainer Randeen Torvik Ragan in a regimen that included twice-a-week strength and balance work. Experts said the same heart-pumping exercise that’s good for everyone could improve brain cell function in folks like Duncan.
“Hang in there, John,” Ragan told Duncan as they came to near the end of a three-mile loop that took an hour.
Duncan’s words were few. He remembered nothing about how he used to train for marathons. Asked if running make him feel better, he said, “I guess.”
“He inspires me,” Ragan told LeBlanc, “because I see that having an illness like that is not an invitation to sit on your butt. The continuing message is that exercise is good for everyone.”
Beaver told LeBlanc, “He’s sort of at the point where he truly lives in the moment now.”
In August 2012, LeBlanc wrote that she ran into Duncan and Ragan during a training session. “He’s looking physically fit and still sticking with the exercise regiment,” LeBlanc told us. “He’s an inspiration.”
Duncan died Feb. 5. His obit was in the newspaper on Sunday. It’s a warm story of an inspiring life.
“John and Becky traveled extensively with their children, which John documented as an excellent photographer. The family visited over 50 countries together, and even after John was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, they continued to travel for years. He made his last trip with the family to Southeast Asia a year before his death.
“John and Becky forged a strong partnership and were long active in Austin and Texas civic and political life, supporting innumerable non-profits, ballot initiatives and Democratic candidates (although John would have happily skipped every event which required he wear a tux).
“John attacked Alzheimer’s full force. He was a marathon runner, and he spent countless hours in the gym and on the hike and bike trail, standing down the disease. He remained engaged and active in every aspect of life until the middle of last year, running his last loop on Lady Bird Lake in June. John was named Care Partner of the Year in 2017 by Alzheimer’s Texas for his refusal to capitulate to the disease,” his obituary reads.
Just like his underdog battles on behalf of the TCLU, Duncan won each and every battle with Alzheimer’s. No, he didn’t. But, like his TCLU battles, he won enough of them to make a difference, enough to declare victory.
There’s a memorial service for him Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Four Seasons Hotel. The family asks for donations to the ACLU of Texas, the Texas Democracy Foundation/Texas Observer, the Trail Foundation or the DKR Foundation for Alzheimer’s Research. Such an appropriate list.
Thanks, John. Thanks for showing us how to fight underdog fights. Both kinds.