Boys & Girls Harbor Founder Tony Duke Dies at 95

Tony Duke doing what he loved most — working with kids
Tony Duke doing what he loved most — working with kids, Courtesy Boys & Girls Harbor

Anthony “Tony” Drexel Duke Sr. died on Wednesday, April 30 at age 95, following a long battle with cancer. The beloved East Hampton resident was founder of Boys & Girls Harbor, a nonprofit summer camp for inner city youth and multidisciplinary education and arts organization, which announced the news of his death, and a recollection of his exemplary life, on its website this week.

A great philanthropist, Duke spent his life educating children and working to improve the lives of underprivileged youth, but he was also a distinguished veteran of World War II, and his military accomplishments — which earned him three battle stars and a bronze star — included serving as division commander in the Battle of Normandy and representing the International Rescue Committee during the Vietnam War and the 1983 Mariel Refugee Crisis in Cuba.

In addition, Duke had a brilliant professional career, which helped further his humanitarian goals. The Princeton graduate (and graduate of St. Paul’s prep school in New Hampshire) worked for several family-owned businesses, such as Duke International Import/Export Company, as vice president, and as president of A.D. Duke Realty. He also worked as director of the American National Bank.

Duke sat on numerous boards throughout his life, including 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. He was also a founding director of the board for the East Hampton Health Care Foundation.

Along with his military honors, Duke was bestowed multiple awards for his service in various roles. He was awarded 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. Duke was also named “living landmark” by the New York Landmark Conservancy and he earned a number of presidential citations for his work with Boys & Girls Harbor in the Harlem community.

President Bill Clinton lauded Duke for his good works with children and as a officer. “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,” Clinton said.

His greatest passion was Boys & Girls Harbor, which Duke founded as a camp for inner-city boys (originally called Boys Harbor) in 1937 after determining that “a clear need wasn’t being filled by the city or by leading social service organizations.” First established on Jessup’s Neck on Peconic Bay, in 1954 Duke moved Boy’s Harbor to a 26-acre site on Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton. That same year, as a way to support his campers year round, he opened the organization’s first office on 94th Street in Manhattan.

He added performing arts and tutoring and counseling to Boys Harbor’s offerings in 1960, and in the late 1970s, the organization added day care and social services after moving the New York City office to 104th Street, where it thrives today. Boys & Girls Harbor went on to help establish the Harbor Science and Arts Charter School, one of the state’s first charter schools, in 2001.

Boys & Girls Harbor’s annual “Fireworks” fundraiser over Three Mile Harbor has become one of the Hamptons’ premier events of summer.

In 2011, the original Boys Harbor camp on Three Mile Harbor was sold to East Hampton Town for $7.3 million, which Duke considered his “founding gift” for the Tony Duke Founder’s Path, the highest level of donation to the Harbor. The following year, in 2012, the Harbor celebrated its 75th anniversary. Since Duke established it in 1937, more than 50,000 youths have attended Boys & Girls Harbor.

Along with sharing the details of Duke’s storied life and his great accomplishments, Boys & Girls Harbor  shared a posthumous message from their founder.

“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,” Duke 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] 75 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

R.I.P. Tony Duke, 1918–2014

Tony Duke at his beloved Boys & Girls Harbor
Tony Duke at his beloved Boys & Girls Harbor, Courtesy The Harbor

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