By Ralphine Major
It all started with a flag. I wrote to our Congressman and asked him to bring a flag to our church during the summer of ‘73. The late John J. Duncan, United States Representative for the Second District, brought a flag that had flown over the Capitol to Fairview Baptist Church in rural Knox County, Tennessee. That day, the Congressman invited me to work as an intern in his Knoxville office for the summer. Thus, began my association with this notable Knoxville family.
The chance to work in a congressional office was a golden opportunity. I put my best foot forward—–all the way from the Humanities Building on The University of Tennessee (UT) campus to the Federal Building on Main Street in downtown Knoxville. When morning classes ended, I walked across campus wearing my Sunday best. I would take a shortcut down the hillside behind the engineering building before heading to Main Street.
Along with several other interns, I reported to Congressman Duncan’s long-time administrator, the late Mildred McRae. The late Ed Bailey, who had played professional baseball, was his field representative. Congressman Duncan, a Scott County native, had previously served the City of Knoxville as Mayor and is credited for starting the Dogwood Arts Festival in 1962. It was exciting to see government at work helping people who needed assistance. The electric typewriter, fax machine, and rotary dial phone were as high-tech as it got in those days. Computers had not yet arrived in the work place. The office work was great fun and a whole new world to me.
It was late summer one day when a tall gentleman came into the office. “Hello, I’m Jim Duncan, Mr. Duncan’s son,” he said as he extended his hand. He did bear a striking resemblance to his father. A few months later, I got a call from Jim Duncan. He had finished law school and was going into practice with Zane Daniel. Though I had no idea who Zane was, I agreed to meet with them on Monday morning. Focus readers may remember when I shared in my tribute to Zane that meeting these high-profile lawyers for an interview was more like a fireside chat. Both of them were surprisingly down to earth. While I had a strong work ethic, I knew nothing about working in a law office. I still have one of the mailout cards announcing their opening: ZANE DANIEL AND JOHN J. DUNCAN, JR. ARE PLEASED TO ANNOUNCE THEIR ASSOCIATION IN THE PRACTICE OF LAW UNDER THE FIRM NAME OF DANIEL & DUNCAN WITH OFFICES AT 708 BURWELL BUILDING, KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE 37902. The Burwell Building was right beside the historic Tennessee Theatre.
Our small staff was quite a trio. Zane was a seasoned attorney with years of experience in the Knox County Attorney General’s office prosecuting cases before becoming a criminal defense attorney. Jimmy was just starting his law practice. I was trying to balance a new job for two popular attorneys, classes at UT, and an active church life which included being the organist. With no one else in the office to show me what to do, I learned from the lawyers themselves how to do my job. Zane recorded each evening what I needed to know for the next day. Jimmy took me on a tour of the old Knox County Courthouse to meet the court clerks. I even got to meet Jimmy’s uncle, Judge Joe Duncan, who, at the time, was a Criminal Court Judge.
After a brief stay, I returned to college full-time to finish my degree. I worked long enough in the law office, however, to learn about these lawyers; and I continued to follow them in the media. I returned to see Jimmy sworn in as State Trial Judge, a position he held for several years. I also remember waking to the news a few years later that his father, Congressman John J. Duncan, had passed away.
Today, I see in our Congressman, John J. (Jimmy) Duncan, Jr., the same traits I saw in the young attorney back then. He still has strong values. He watches out for taxpayers’ dollars. He is a strong Christian, a family man, and a person of integrity. I often say he is East Tennessee’s best friend in Washington. Even though he walks the halls of Congress, he does not forget that it is the citizens he represents who have returned him to office time and again. He once told me that it is important for people to be happy in their work since they spend at least eight hours a day on the job. Our paths seldom cross these days, but it is great to see him when they do. A few years ago, I saw Congressman Duncan in downtown Knoxville with a group of high school boys who were visiting his office. Jimmy’s concern that day was about the senior citizens having to decide whether to pay the electric bill or buy medicine.
To this day, Jimmy still tells about the dogs I named Daniel and Duncan, after him and Zane. His wife, Lynn, is as down to earth as he is. Lynn’s role in raising their family in East Tennessee and her support has enabled the Congressman to do what he does so well—represent his constituents in Washington. He even helped bring a fallen soldier’s Japanese-born little boy to these United States. Jimmy and Lynn have two daughters and two sons, and they are the proud grandparents to five grandchildren.
Just days before I finished writing this column, a mother of two sons shared something special with me. Jimmy had attended an Eagle Scout ceremony, as he so often does. Her nineteen-year-old son is interested in politics, but she knows the dark cloud of deceit and distrust that often looms over politicians. It was refreshing to hear something her son said. “If Jimmy can do it, I can, too,” he told her, referring to Congressman Duncan’s excellent record of maintaining integrity and honesty while serving his East Tennessee constituents.
A few days ago, I saw a plaque in one of my favorite stores. The words on it read: “ . . . and what does the Lord require of you, but to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” Micah 6:8. I remembered that it was the same Bible verse Jimmy quoted at Zane’s memorial service. I got the plaque and put it in a place where I see it every day. When we keep this message in our thoughts and minds, none of us can go astray.