Raise a glass of sweet tea: The founding editor of Duke Magazine says farewell

After more than thirty-eight years, the search for a new editor starts after this issue

Back in a distant era, the fall of 1983, I learned that Duke would be launching a new alumni magazine and hiring a founding editor. Quite an attractive opportunity: A startup magazine. A research university. A first plunge into the exotic South.

Not long before that, John Piva had come to Duke as vice president for alumni and development. As a finalist for the editor position, I found myself in John’s office, which was alongside the classics department—a nice meshing of the administrative and the academic. He asked me, wryly but meaningfully, why I would want to leave the familiar embrace of my alma mater (Lafayette, where I had been working) to join a university that hadn’t figured out what it wanted to be. I answered, more or less, that Duke as a work in progress was itself a draw for a prospective editor.

My answer, I assume, helped land me the job. That and the fact that I was relatively nimble in navigating Bullock’s Barbecue, the prime eating spot in what was then a very different Durham. My lunchtime host was alumni director Laney Funderburk ’60. It was my inaugural encounter with barbecue as a noun. Also with presweetened iced tea—into which I thoughtlessly applied a couple of packets of sugar. Laney observed my lack of cultural awareness without comment. My sugar high, I later figured, made me an intriguingly energetic prospect as I shuttled from interview to interview.

When the job offer came, Laney said that Duke would expect from me a five-year commitment. Well, that promise of five years became more than thirty-eight years.

Writing for the magazine, I’ve engaged with two homegrown Nobel laureates and five Duke presidents, asked how Duke came to build one of the coolest-ever English departments, and probed the strategy and the serendipity behind Duke’s earning a place among the hottest-ever colleges. One editorial colleague, Aaron Kirschenfeld ’07—now a light-blue loyalist at UNC-Chapel Hill, as its digital-initiatives law librarian—traced the zigzaggy path to the definitive color dubbed Duke Blue. Another, Bridget Booher ’82, A.M. ’92, profiled the iconic booster of the Duke Blue brand, Coach K.

The magazine has signaled that Duke is sufficiently self-confident to ask hard questions of itself. We’ve explored a federally imposed shutdown of human-subject research at the medical center; efforts to confront sexual violence among students; the challenging campus conversations around race; and, through my two cover stories, the notorious episode around lacrosse. What this kind of magazine offers is access to sources, space for storytelling, and time for reporting. It offers, in a word, context. Readership surveys consistently show that alumni trust the magazine and look to it as their main source for feeling up-todate on the university.

Duke’s impressive evolution—East Campus becoming a first-year campus stands out as a milestone—is tied to the student experience. For one of my favorite stories, a student led me, along with a couple of local food experts, in sampling the many iterations of dining on campus. For another, I looked at how undergraduates navigate the countless choices they’re faced with: what major to pursue, where to study abroad, what organizations to join.

Now and again, their choices have led students to the magazine’s internship program. Other students have come to learn about the magazine’s sensibility through my teaching (the first-year writing program, the Focus program, and the Sanford magazine- journalism course). Some have gone on to become journalists; several are book authors. Post-graduation, two headed to China: Emily Feng ’15, as NPR’s Beijing correspondent, and Phil Tinari ’01, as the director of a groundbreaking contemporary-art museum.

The journalist who became a mentor for me was Clay Felker ’51, the founding chair of the magazine’s advisory board—and founding editor of New York magazine. The board came into being around the time the magazine came into being, and it included the then-education editors of Time and Newsweek (Susan Tifft ’73 and Duke parent Jerry Footlick, respectively). Clay always pressed me to mine the enormous intellectual resources of the campus, to apply those resources in making sense of the issues of the day. A magazine builds a relationship with its readers by projecting a clear identity, he would say, and a university-based magazine should be defined by interesting ideas.

There have been important allies on campus as well. One was John Burness, Duke’s now-retired senior vice president for public affairs. He might disagree with some particular editorial decision. But he saw his job, he told me, as defending the magazine and educating Duke’s hierarchy about the importance of preserving the magazine’s integrity.

The core contributors to the magazine’s trajectory have been my colleagues on the magazine. Our inaugural team, including Sam Hull and Sue Bloch, took to writing headlines poolside at Duke’s Faculty Club. (“Leaping Lemurs! It’s a Living Library!” was one for the ages—and not without relevance in the current issue.) That team twice earned Magazine of the Year honors in a national alumni-magazine competition. Today’s staff—Adrienne Martin, Scott Huler, and Corbie Hill, along with art director Lacey Chylack and staff assistant Delecia Hatcher—have in common a wide-ranging curiosity, an interest in the workings of the campus, and a commitment to journalistic standards. Historically, the staff, along with the advisory board, has embraced a sometimes tricky insider-outsider perspective: eager to scoop up inside knowledge about Duke developments; equally eager to find storytelling avenues that readers outside the campus would find compelling.

After this issue, the search will start for a new editor, and I’ll be moving on to a new role, though with continuing opportunities to write—and maybe with more opportunities for indulging in plates of barbecue and multiple refills of iced tea. No sugar required. 

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Ken Dennard, A.B.'81's picture
Great job for all these years of excellence! Best wishes on your next endeavor!! -Kenny Dennard '81