A. Baker Duncan ’45: In Memoriam

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Several months after I was appointed as Woodberry’s ninth headmaster but long before I began, the phone rang in my office at Randolph School in Huntsville, Alabama. “I want to come see you,” he announced. And I recognized the voice right away. He wasn’t yelling, but he was emphatic. Baker Duncan ‘45, Woodberry’s fourth headmaster and a fellow Texan, gave me several dates that worked for him. I checked my calendar and said the first would work well for me, but that my wife, Jennifer, might have a conflict. “Well that won’t do,” he concluded. “I want to see her, too.”

So on the appointed day Jennifer and I drove out to the Huntsville airport and greeted the tall, lanky former headmaster as he came through security. We chatted informally on the drive back to my office at Randolph, but once the door closed, he was ready for business. Baker pulled out a yellow legal pad. He had questions for Jennifer and me, and they were direct and occasionally uncomfortable. At one point I remember thinking, “Doesn’t he know that they’ve already offered me the job?”

And then, when we had been interrogated to his satisfaction, Baker turned the sheet over and started offering advice and letting me know what he hoped I’d do, or, more to the point, what he expected me to do. I liked this part of our conversation, mostly because I appreciate candor and transparency, even when I don’t always agree with the counsel. We went back and forth for a while about Woodberry and the path forward. And then he looked straight at Jennifer and then at me and said directly to me, “Take time for her and for your family.” I assured him I would try and he replied, “Well, that’s it. You can take me back to the airport. I’m ready to go.”

What a man, and what a life! Baker was Shakespearean in his dimensions, and he was absolutely unforgettable. He served as headmaster here from 1962-1970, but he had an outsized influence on the Woodberry community and our culture that far surpassed the length  of his eight year tenure. I’ve heard from many alumni that Baker terrorized them, and he loved them. He demanded excellence, and he expected the boys to deliver. He had high expectations for everyone in the school, starting with himself. Boys learned to believe in themselves because their headmaster had believed in them first. Baker built upon his understanding of J. Carter Walker’s leadership, namely that the headmaster’s primary responsibility was to help boys “do the best they can with what they have.”

Baker’s vision for Woodberry was to reach for national excellence. He hired superbly, attracting extraordinary faculty to the school who would advance his belief in academic excellence. He believed in the arts, and he committed resources beyond athletics as the school’s primary extracurricular activity. He launched Woodberry’s sports camp and hired Red and Cathy Caughron to run it. He worked with the board to build Woodberry’s endowment so that the school could be strong in perpetuity. And at the close of his tenure, he put his job on the line by requesting that the board integrate Woodberry Forest or accept his resignation. As headmaster, Baker brought Woodberry into the modern era, and all of us are in his debt.

His no-nonsense style was brusque and sometimes hard to handle. He was a workaholic who occasionally made his family feel like he might love Woodberry more than he loved them. His modus operandi was control, and he sought to exercise as much of it as he possibly could. He signed boys up for mixers, whether they wanted to go or not. He called up college admissions officers and told them whom they should accept into their freshman class, and he told the boys where they should go to college. Whether they wanted to go where he directed was of little concern to him. He knew the boys and knew where they would thrive.

After leaving Woodberry and heading back to the business world in Texas, Baker’s passion for Woodberry never faded. He was built for community and togetherness, and he worked hard to bring people together for meetings, meals, and discussions about the school and its future. He mentored scores of men for years, and they mentored him in return. I’ve always admired Baker for working hard to confront the shadow side of  his own life, and he did so until the very end.

He last visited Woodberry in 2017 to celebrate the fiftieth reunion for his beloved class of 1967. It was emotional and cathartic for both Baker and the alumni. I called him consistently for quick telephone chats, and he never ceased to tell me what I should do as headmaster. My last visit with him in person was at the Forum in San Antonio. I arrived punctually at the appointed hour and sat across from him. He pulled out his yellow legal pad and checked off the items that he wanted to cover. And when the hour had passed and we had completed the list, he looked up and said, “Goodbye.” Meeting over. Godspeed, Baker. You were one of a kind, and I’ll miss you.