Forever Grateful: Remembering Tony Duke 1918-2014

Boys & Girls Harbor founder, philanthropist and military hero Anthony “Tony” Drexel Duke Sr. died at age 95 on Wednesday, April 29 following a long battle with cancer.

Below, Duke’s personal assistant of 11 years, Awilda Penney, shares her memories of her boss and friend, and her gratitude for their time together.

My Beloved Tony,

They say you had a long battle with cancer — well, knowing you for 11 years and living with you for the past 9 years, I’d say you won the battle! You were amazing to the very end, showing me how to live and die with honor, dignity and grace! We lived a fruitful, active, productive life, you and I. We played golf just a few weeks ago and had a road trip to Palm Beach to visit family there last month on your insistence that we go to cheer up another family member who just completed chemotherapy. We loved our road trips and didn’t think twice about hitting the road to see family wherever they were.

We always had our golf clubs in the car and would get off whatever highway we were on whenever we saw a Golf Course sign. The year I first learned, we played just about every day. You taught me the game of golf a few years back and just recently joked that you’ve come to regret it! What an amazing love of the game we shared. I will always think of you on a golf course now, for the rest of my life.

We’ve visited family in Peru at least three times, Costa Rica at least three times, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Key West, Madrid, Barcelona, Ibiza… We had an unforgettable 10-day golfing trip to Ireland where we played nine holes in the morning, would break for lunch and play another nine holes at a different golf course in the afternoon!

We had a beautiful vacation with daughter and her husband in France, where we chartered a boat and sailed the South of France. We then had a car delivered and drove from the South of France through the Loire Valley to Normandy, ending in Paris where we met up again with your daughter and husband and spent a glorious weekend there before flying back to New York.

In writing your memoirs, we visited the Duke Family Homestead in Durham, North Carolina, all the beachheads in Normandy, France, the original St. Paul’s Camp in Concord, New Hampshire — the inspiration for your starting Boys & Girls Harbor— and where you were born on Long Beach, Long Island and every place you’ve ever lived growing up and during your marriages. You showed me every school you ever attended! In our 9 years living together we’ve lived in five different apartments!

I will not speak of loss. I am only grateful for what I have gained from you sharing your life with me! You shared your life completely with me and I gave you all I had to give. I am the luckiest girl in the world! This I know, and this I will never forget and will always treasure.

I believe one feels a sense of loss when there is a longing for more, that somehow something was left unsaid or undone. We did SO much, so I do not feel loss, just gratitude. Your 90th and 95th birthday/family reunion celebrations were wonderful and only when you turned 95 did you say to me you finally were starting to feel like an old man. You did not want to be an old man and you never were. Just last week I think you thought this old man feeling is for the birds and you decided there was nothing left to do or prove. I respect that.

I will love you forever, Tony Duke. Thank you for showing me how to live, even while dying of cancer (for those who want to say you died of cancer).

Forever grateful,
Your personal assistant of 11 years,
Ms. Awilda Penney

Awilda Penney and Tony Duke in Gainesville, Florida

Awilda Penney and Tony Duke in Gainesville, Florida, Courtesy Awilda Penney

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