A little girl was rummaging through the bookshelves of her Vermont house when she found a large book dedicated to James Madison University. She asked her father why they owned such an odd book about a school in Virginia. He sat her down by the window, opened the book and pointed to a picture of Samuel Page Duke. “He,” he said, “is your great-grandfather.”
Samuel Page Duke was the second and longest-reigning president of JMU from 1919 to 1949 and provided his last name for the school’s mascot. He oversaw the name change from the State Teachers College at Harrisonburg to Madison College, as well as the development of several buildings and programs on campus, like Sheldon and Keezell Halls. To Christie Duke, however, he was family.
Despite the family name, freshman theatre major Christie is one of the first in her family to attend JMU, although many have toured the campus.
“It’s kind of a rite of passage for the children to go see JMU when you’re applying for colleges,” Christie said. “I stepped on campus once, didn’t even take a tour, and I was like, ‘This is where I’m going.’ I absolutely loved it, I completely fell in love.”
While Christie has strong ties to JMU, she doesn’t make a big deal out of her family lineage.
“She’s certainly not a kid that would rest on her own pedigree,” Stuart Duke, her father, said. “She’s aware she bares the Duke name and you know we kid her as others do about being truly a Duke, but she’s just happy to be down there.”
Christie never met her great-grandfather because he died in 1955, before her father was born. However, she feels a tie to President Duke through the campus.
“I think it’s really cool that I can walk along the same paths and see the same buildings that he once saw,” Christie said. “This place that he had such a big hand in creating that I love so much. What he wanted for this school is something that I really like, so we’re kind of connected that way.”
While Christie is the first in her immediate family to attend, her father has a background in lighting design and has periodically done work with JMU’s theatre department. Most recently, he guest-designed for “The Tempest.”
“It’s very gratifying to be able to participate in some small ways every once in awhile in the university, and that much more fun now that my daughter’s there,” Stuart said.
While neither Christie nor Stuart was able to meet President Duke, Christie’s uncle, Tom Duke, remembered visiting as a child when it was called Madison College to see President Duke and his wife.
“I think it’s a wonderful way for the school to kind of remember him,” Tom said, reflecting on his grandfather’s namesake as JMU’s mascot. “I know he loved Madison and poured his heart and soul into his tenure as president. I think he’d be very happy to see what has become, what in those days was a very small women’s teachers college.”
The Duke family has pride in their history and what Samuel Page Duke did for JMU.
Since Christie doesn’t often talk about her namesake to others, not many people on campus know she’s a direct descendent of the former president.
“Some people just think that it’s just a coincidence,” Christie said. “There are a good handful of people that know. A lot of my professors, I don’t think know. I don’t think anyone really puts the pieces together; that’s kind of my little secret.”
While Christie is proud to be related to the former JMU president, she doesn’t expect preferential treatment.
“I don’t want anyone to treat me any differently,” she said. “I’m just like everyone else: I skip my classes when I’m really tired, eat a lot of bad food from Dukes, which coincidentally is my favorite dining hall.”
Christie is enjoying her time at JMU, and thinks it serves her name well. She likes that the mascot is not just associated with her last name, but the camaraderie among students as well.
“There’s such a sense of community here,” Christie said. “The people hold doors and you say hi to people that you barely know. Everyone here is so friendly. I like that my last name is put on that positive attitude and school spirit.”
Contact Emma Korynta at firstname.lastname@example.org.