Friday Morning Early
Catastrophe. As I was racing down Beverly Boulevard to Fox to appear on Cavuto on Business, my phone rang in the car. It was a Dallas number. I answered it.
“Ben,” said a woman’s voice. “It’s Judy.”
That meant Judy Duke, the lovely daughter of our dear friend, Barbara Duke. Before I could say anything, Judy said, “I just wanted you to know that mother died this morning.”
That’s the catastrophe. Barbara Duke is, was, one of the women that my wife and I looked up to, loved, adored, gloried in, beyond almost anyone else on this earth.
She was about 84 and she had been extremely ill with cancer, but we thought she had a few more months. Now, she’s gone.
“Mother just was talking to my daughter this morning,” Judy said, “and she said she wanted to sleep, and she never woke up.”
Good way to go, I would say.
Now, let me tell you about Barbara Duke. I only knew her for about six years. I met her when I was speaking at Midland College in Midland, Texas in 2005, right after we bought our home in Rancho Mirage. She was at a reception at the Midland Racquet Club and she called out to me, “Hey, y’all. Your father in law was the handsomest man I ever saw in my whole life.”
She was a beautiful woman with bright blue eyes and a confident smile. She had grown up in Prescott, Arkansas, right next to where my wife’s father’s family, the Denmans, lived during the Great Depression and World War II. She introduced herself, told about how handsome my father in law, Dale Denman, Jr., looked in his USMA uniform and then his Army uniform, and then somehow it came up that she lived in Indian Wells, California at Eldorado Country Club in the winter. That’s only about twenty minutes or so from our club, Morningside, in Rancho Mirage, so I told her we would get together.
Sure enough, we did. We spent every Thanksgiving with her and her friends, mostly very cheery pals from Midland, and had many dinners with her and those same pals at the dining room at Eldorado.
To say she was a great hostess was an understatement. She was warm, welcoming, a super cook, a great one for jokes, and fiercely loyal. To go to her parties was to be in a room of cheerful, upbeat, good-natured men and women who seemed to have the world licked.
Our son came out for Thanksgiving, sat with the card-playing, football-watching men at Barbara’s house, and was a happy young man. Everyone around Barbara seemed happy.
A few years ago, Barbara decided that it was time for my wife and her and Judy to visit their roots in Prescott. It was too much to drive, so she chartered a jet. They moseyed around the DeAnn Cemetery in Prescott, and laughed and drank, and it went into the history books.
I can see I am not putting my finger on just how zestful Barbara was, but maybe some of you are old enough to remember Call Me Madame, the great musical about Perle Mesta, the famous Washington, D.C. social whiz in the Truman and Eisenhower years. She was called “The Hostess With The Mostest” and that was Barbara. With those haunting blue eyes and her endlessly calling out, “Hey, y’all, we still have two more courses to go.” Or doing the Razorback cheer, “Sooo-eee, pig, pig, pig.” But loudly. She meant it.
Barbara was a widow. Her lifelong (almost) husband, Bob Duke, a major player in the mud business and then in oil, had died in 2002. The only time Babs looked sad was when Duke’s name came up, and then she would reflexively cry.
Time passed. The last time we saw Barbara at Eldorado, in late March, she looked tired. She was not the same. I suspected she was ill.
Then, about six weeks ago or maybe a bit more, she e-mailed me to call her right away. I did, and she told me she had cancer of the pancreas, with migration to the liver and the lymph nodes.
We flew out to see her about four weeks ago in Midland and she was obviously ill (she could not eat) but she was her same feisty self. She had some joke about a parrot holding his claw over his eye and saying, “Screw you, Moshe Dayan,” and she kept trying to remember the way the joke went and she couldn’t, but she would hold her hand up over her eye and look at me and laugh and laugh.
Then, about ten days ago when we were in Idaho, Judy told us that Barbara was at home but was getting hospice care.
Then, the call this morning. Now, of course I have had friends far longer than I knew Barbara. I have had friends I saw more often. But I almost never knew anyone who (so to speak) “got me” and saw the good and the bad in me and loved me anyway. (Al and Sally Burton are at the top of this heap.) She made much of me despite her endless mocking of me, and I loved her and so did my wife, who considered Barbara an irreplaceable link with her father, dead since 2004.
We are devastated about Barbara, especially coming right after T-Dee and Brigid. It is too much. Too much death.
No good deed goes unpunished.
Alex and I are in Midland. We flew here on Southwest, and got to the fine airport here, and found our driver at about 11 at night. Only the driver is from somewhere about 100 miles from here and has no idea at all where our hotel is or how to get there and it is very very hot and we are tired and in mourning.
Finally, a super kind man from the Avis desk at MAF patiently told our driver how to get to the Courtyard by Marriott and off we went. The hotel had made mistakes about our reservations, but the extremely able desk clerk, Kyle, got everything fixed, told me how to operate the microwave to make my frozen TV dinner, and then off to bed.
Up early to go to Resthaven Memorial Park to attend the interment of Barbara Duke, next to her beloved Bob Duke. It was hot. Not as hot as Washington, D.C. in summer, true hell, but hot enough. The preacher said a few words. Then a singer sang, “It Is Well With My Soul,” and then over to the First Presbyterian Church for the service. That same singer sang, and two different preachers preached, and Barbara’s brother spoke, and I spoke, and then it was over.
We had a luncheon at the Racquet Club and I could see the spot where I met Barbara just a stone’s throw from where we were eating today. The people at the luncheon were uniformly good looking and confident. But we are missing Barbara terribly. She was in many ways the linchpin of our friendship lives in the desert.
I simply have to tell you more about why she was so great: she never competed, never bragged about how rich she was, would not tolerate bragging or competing in her home, would never allow any of her rich pals to brag, and I don’t think they wanted to anyway because that’s not the way life is in West Texas. She never, and I mean NEVER allowed anyone in her home to feel “less than” or left out. In other words, she was the exact same as my father-in-law and my wife. The exact opposite of what we see day by day in L.A. We loved her. Good-bye to the Racquet Club, where I met a truly great lady.
Off to MAF to wait for our flight home. My favorite TSA guard, the beautiful Kara Cooper, greeted me with a smile and a hug. I really love TSA personnel at almost any airport, but the ones at Midland are the best of all. Then a perfect Southwest flight to LAX and a plunge into heavy traffic.
We got home and my wife fell into a deep sleep. As for me, I am up thinking about The Hostess With The Mostest, who always made me feel as if I had a home. I told you this was a catastrophe. To lose this close a friend, at my age, is just a disaster for me. It is a disaster for everyone who knew her, and most of all for her dear children and grandchildren. I pray we can stay close.