Honoring a bright star - James H. "Red" Duke, Jr., MD
Try to define UTHealth’s formula for success and you’ll find excellence in patient care, teaching, and medical discovery all require one essential ingredient—dedicated and talented people. The challenge is to select just one of our UTHealth stars to honor for a lifetime of contributions at our upcoming 2014 Constellation Gala on Nov. 14. Kicking off our inaugural event calls for a legendary honoree. Who better fits this description than trauma surgeon James H. “Red” Duke, Jr., MD?
With his trademark bristly mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, Texas twang, and colorful stories, Duke is a one-of-a-kind folk hero with the personality of an old fashioned country doctor and the 24/7 skills of a modern-day trauma surgeon. In a constellation of UTHealth stars across all schools and disciplines, his star status will be in the spotlight as we celebrate his lifetime of contributions to UTHealth and the Houston community.
In 1972, Duke joined the Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) as a professor of surgery. By 1976 he was instrumental to the launching of Life Flight; a program that has become one of the premier air ambulance services in the country. In the 1980s his beloved persona and ability to make the complicated seem simple led him to appear in numerous news and television shows, most famously, Dr. Red Duke Texas Health Reports, which was syndicated internationally. By the late 1980s his name was even bantered about nationally as a future candidate for Surgeon General.
All contributed to make him a household name across the country as he closed his Health Reports programs with the familiar, “From The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston… I’m Dr. Red Duke.” His trademark “Dukeisms” became classics—each with an important message that would make the receiver of these pearls of wisdom think and smile simultaneously.
Born in 1928 in Ennis, Texas, Duke’s family moved to Hillsboro, where the enterprising young Duke attended school, picked cotton, dug ditches, and became the lone agent for the Saturday Evening Post and the Dallas Morning News while earning Eagle Boy Scout distinction. He acquired his name, “Red,” from his childhood curly red locks. Graduating from Hillsboro High School, he attended Texas A&M University and graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree and school-wide popularity as an Aggie yell leader. With his undergraduate degree in hand he served in Germany for two years as an Army tank commander before enrolling in the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. His divinity degree was followed by medical school at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas where he graduated in 1960. “I always wanted to be a doctor,” says Duke. “It just seemed like becoming a doctor was the perfect way to serve people and I’m sure glad I did as I love doing it.”
Medical school was followed by postgraduate training including a surgical residency that placed him at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital that fateful day, Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally arrived. Duke tended to Connally and a lifelong friendship was born.
From wildlife conservation (he founded and served as president of the Texas Bighorn Society) to his current work with the U.S. military to enhance medical technology on the battlefield and surgical techniques supporting the medical needs of our military personnel, Duke’s legacy can be seen everywhere. He is currently working with Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Workforce Commission to support job initiatives for hiring veterans.
Most recently, he was honored on Sept. 7 with the dedication of Alvin Independent School District’s newest campus, the Dr. James “Red” Duke Elementary. The overflowing crowd waited through a torrential rainstorm for Duke’s arrival not to be disappointed. A bit under the weather himself from “a pesky heart valve that has me stoved up,” Duke was clearly touched by the honor and outpouring of community affection. “When I got the call, my first question was why would anyone want to honor me with the naming of a school? It is a very special honor to me and that it is an elementary school makes it makes it even more meaningful as those are the formative years when young lives are shaped in so many important ways. I’m grateful beyond words.”
UTHealth President Giuseppe N. Colasurdo, MD is delighted to be honoring Duke at the upcoming Constellation Gala. “It is truly exciting to know our own living legend, Dr. Red Duke, will be front and center at our inaugural gala. What better way to celebrate the institution’s excellence than to celebrate the excellence from within? For half a century, Red Duke has been delivering quality patient care, educating the next generation of surgeons, and championing important community causes with Texas-sized results second to none. We are honored that he has accepted our invitation to celebrate his legacy at this event, and look forward to thanking him for his vision, his service and his tremendous contributions to UTHealth and the Houston community.”