Life's Broad Sea: Alumni in the spotlight

Deborah Lee James ’79 was nominated by President Barack Obama in August to be the nation’s next Air Force Secretary. If confirmed by the Senate, she would become only the second female secretary in the Air Force’s history and among the few female senior civilian leaders of an armed-services branch.

Courtesy SAIC


Since 2013, James has been president of the technology and engineering sector at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a defense company that works closely with the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, among others. Before joining SAIC, she was vice president and chief operating officer at Business Executives for National Security. She was also a staff member on the House Armed Services Committee for more than a decade.

James’ nomination comes at a critical time for the Air Force, which has come under fire for dozens of sexual-assault cases involving instructors. A bipartisan Senate group has been examining how to reduce the number of sexual-assault incidents, as well as overhauling how cases are handled in the military justice system.




A third-generation Alaskan banker, Betsy Cuddy Lawer ’71 flirted briefly with the idea of becoming an interior designer. But the pull of the family business proved too strong. With an undergraduate major in economics, she worked her way up the ranks of First National Bank, and now serves as president of the state’s largest locally owned bank. Forbes named First National one of the nation’s Top 100 Most Trustworthy Companies in 2012 and 2013.

Lawer Family Wines

Betsy and her husband, David Lawer ’72, the bank’s senior vice president, have used their professional expertise to launch Lawer Family Wines. Based in Calistoga, California, the vineyard produces three signature labels: Three Coins (cabernet sauvignon), Duck Shack (chardonnay), and Hooker (syrah). The latter refers to the position David played on the Duke rugby team.

“My father was a rugby player, and he used to sing us sanitized versions of rugby songs, which can be quite bawdy,” says Betsy. “When I called and told him I was dating a rugby player, and that I was learning new [unedited] versions of the songs he taught us, there was silence on the phone.”

Lawer says that running the vineyard serves double duty for her. “I love business, which is really about bringing people together to solve challenges and seize opportunities. But it was also a defensive move on my part. My husband is a very good golfer, and as we got older and had more disposable time, I realized I didn’t want to end up stuck at some golf resort. So this was the perfect solution—he gets to play golf, and I get to run a vineyard.”




Even before Al Jazeera America launched this past August, it was clear the Qatar-based media corporation intended to go head-to-head with news outlets ranging from Fox News to MSNBC. In addition to hiring senior-level executives from ABC, CNN, and MSNBC, it opened a dozen bureaus in major cities and recruited veteran journalists and news anchors. Among them is John Seigenthaler ’78, who anchored the NBC Nightly News Weekend Edition for more than a decade and has been a reporter for the Today Show, Dateline NBC, and Meet the Press. Seigenthaler, who was involved with Cable 13 as a student, is also a member of Duke Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Board. He will be the prime-time news anchor for Al Jazeera America. 


Kerry Brock

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