Loudon teacher receives diploma in time for 40th high school reunion

Amy Beth Miller-thedailytimes.com

When David Dukes tells his students at Loudon High School to buckle down and earn their diploma or they’ll regret it, he speaks from personal experience.

By the time his classmates in the Class of 1977 were picking up their diplomas in Gainsville, Ga., Dukes was in boot camp beginning what would be a 24-year career in the Marine Corps.
The Navy Junior ROTC instructor holds a bachelor’s degree in aviation management, but most people didn’t know until this month that Dukes didn’t have a high school diploma. Instead, he earned an equivalency diploma in the Marines.
“I loved high school, and I loved all my friends,” Dukes recalled this week, but he admits he made bad decisions. His senior year he preferred to play hooky and go to the lake rather than class.
One day when a friend needed a ride to a recruiter’s office Dukes drove and then began listening and asking questions.

Enlists in Marines

Dukes already knew he couldn’t graduate on time. “There was no way I was going to make it,” he said. So he enlisted in December 1976 and reported for duty in May.
When Dukes checked in at the Parris Island education office, he already was embarrassed that he didn’t have a diploma and signed up for the General Educational Development test, passing the first time he took it. “Someone in the Gainesville school district must have done something right,” he said.
“I called my mother the day I got it,” he said of the GED. Without a diploma, he said, “I was ashamed for my family.”
Dukes already planned to go to college at some point, as his parents and four siblings had.
Unhappy with his career field of logistics and support, he signed up for embassy duty and served in India, Chad, Switzerland, Guatemala and China. “Not many Marines get to do all that,” he said.
“I was just a boy from middle Georgia back then,” he said. “People probably couldn’t understand how I talked.”
In 2001, he retired from the Marines as a master sergeant when his mother, Louise, was dying of cancer. “It was time to take care of my family,” he said.
Dukes had begun working on his bachelor’s degree in the late 1970s, taking classes when he could in various locations. As he prepared to leave the military, he finished the degree through Southern Illinois University, majoring in aviation management because that was the degree available.
While he was figuring out what to do next, Dukes decided to apply for the position of NJROTC instructor at Loudon High School, and his big sister encouraged him to wear a suit when he dropped off his application.
“They interviewed me right on the spot,” he said.

Back in class

A Maryville resident now, Dukes began teaching during the 2001-02 school year. “The first year or so was frustrating for me,” he said, because he was unaccustomed to teens’ disrespect and apathy. “The Marine Corps is a different culture.”
“I got kids like me,” he said.
He tells his students, “I’m the king knucklehead. What you’re trying to do, I’ve done twice.”
“You can get behind fast,” he warns them, “and when you’re behind it becomes a slippery hill” to work your way back.
Dukes believes students appreciate the hard truth. He fondly recalls one of his teachers, Miss Farr. “She saw right through me,” he said. “She pulled no punches.”
Although he skipped other classes, Dukes showed up for her history class. “I was scared of her,” he admitted, and when she called him out for acting up in class, “I would apologize to her.”
“She was a big influence on me,” Dukes said.
The ROTC program emphasizes life skills, such as responsibility and working with others that will serve students whether they enter the military or not.
“I watch kids grow up from 14 to 18,” Dukes said.
“I like it — Don’t tell them that,” he said with a laugh.
Even after they leave the program, students sometimes text and ask him for advice. “That makes me feel like I’m doing something right, maybe,” the teacher said.

Overcoming regret

During a visit to his hometown a couple of years ago, he mentioned to a longtime friend, “I really regret not finishing school.”
Dr. Fletcher Law, now a pastor of a community ministry, teacher and coach, took the lead in doing something about that. Without telling Dukes, Law worked to obtain a veterans diploma for his friend.
“I’m overwhelmed by my friends,” Dukes said.
When Law called about a month ago to say Dukes would receive his diploma with Gainesville’s Class of 2017, at first he resisted. “I was 70 percent, ‘No, I don’t want to do this,’” said Dukes. “I don’t want people to see my ultimate failure.”
Although Dukes often told his students and two sons that he had been a poor student and immature in high school, he had never mentioned that he left without a diploma.
Dukes told his sons about a week before he left for Gainesville to receive the diploma. “I’m proud of you, Dad,” said his oldest son, also named Fletcher.
He returns to his hometown often, but when Dukes met with friends and a former coach at the Collegiate Grill before the graduation, “It was like a welcome home again,” he said. They brought gifts for him, including a football jersey.
“My friends were just as happy as I was,” he said. “It made me feel better.”

Limousine ride

Law arranged a limousine ride to the graduation ceremony, where Dukes donned a red gown along with three other adults receiving honorary diplomas. A member of the school board, the brother of one of Dukes’ high school friends, presented his diploma.
Dukes raised his arms in the air, just like his younger son, Andy, had done during his graduation from William Blount High School that Monday.
His diploma says June 6, 1977, and Dukes is looking forward to the 40th class reunion in late July. “I don’t have to crash the reunion,” he laughed.