Even though he graduated as the president of his class at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Robert Morton Duncan ’52 once told a reporter, “I wasn’t on fire about the law as a law student. … I didn’t see myself as having a place in the law. I didn’t know any black lawyers.”
Where there were none, Duncan became the first.
Duncan, one of the College’s most distinguished alumni, died Nov. 2, 2012 at the age of 85, leaving behind his wife of 57 years, Shirley; their three children, Linn, Vincent, and Tracey; and countless colleagues and friends.
Born in Urbana, Ohio on Aug. 24, 1927, Duncan attended a desegregated school in a segregated community. In 1948, he received his bachelor’s degree from Ohio State before going on to earn his law degree in 1952.
He broke racial barriers when he became the first black judge elected in Franklin County in 1966 and to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1969. He served on that bench until 1971, when he became the first black member of the U.S. Court of Military Appeals. President Richard Nixon appointed Duncan to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in 1974, becoming the first black judge appointed to the federal bench in Ohio. It was in this position that Duncan wrote the landmark order ending segregation in the Columbus Public Schools. His fairness, leadership, and accessibility to community groups helped ensure a smooth process of desegregation.
He served on the federal bench until 1985, when he joined Jones Day Reavis & Pogue. Other roles he played in his career included attorney examiner for the Ohio Bureau of Workmen’s Compensation, Columbus city prosecutor, and chief counsel to the attorney general of Ohio.
Throughout his career, Duncan maintained a close relationship with the Moritz community, where he was a mentor to students and faculty alike. He was a distinguished jurist in residence, past president of the College’s Alumni Association, and honorary member of the College’s National Council. The College has a professorship, awards, and multiple scholarships in his name as the result of donations made by those he inspired.
“I am so fortunate to count myself as one of the hundreds, and likely thousands, of individuals who have benefited from Bob’s wisdom and guidance,” said Dean Alan C. Michaels, the Edwin M. Cooperman Professor of Law. “He was an extraordinary mentor whose values were a steady beacon for our community. He will be deeply, deeply missed – there will not be another Bob Duncan – but he will live on in our memories and in our actions inspired and guided by his example.”
Duncan’s service to the University was great. In addition to serving the University as vice president and general counsel, he was a member of the University’s Board of Trustees, at one time serving as its secretary; the Executive Committee of the President’s Club; and chairman of the University Hospital Board.
“There’s some magic about Ohio State. Part of it is emotional,” Duncan said about his ties to the University. “It’s sort of like family and home, and I don’t exactly know how you describe all of the wonders of that family and home.”
He was inducted into the University’s College of Education Hall of Fame and, in 1979, received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Moritz.
“Bob Duncan was a truly extraordinary individual who gave so much to the community, the University, and the nation through his lifetime of service. We at the law school have been privileged by Bob’s presence, wisdom, and leadership in
innumerable ways,” Michaels said.
A man whose legacy must be celebrated. A man with unshakeable integrity and courage. A surrogate grandfather and friend. These are just a few of the ways the following people described Duncan in their personal tributes.
By E. Gordon Gee, President and Professor of Law, The Ohio State University:
“In early November, The Ohio State University lost a great son. Judge Duncan impacted many lives in so many ways, with an unshakeable belief in the human spirit.
When cacophonous voices competed to be heard on issues of great importance, he had the ability to do the right thing at the right time. There are few people in this community, in the state of Ohio, and very few nationally, who were not impacted directly or indirectly by his insight and leadership.
Judge Duncan was an iconic lawyer, but that was not his calling. He was a trailblazer as a federal and state judge, but that was not his calling. He was a valued member of the Board of Trustees of our University, but that was not his calling. His true and most profound calling was to inspire us to rise to our better angels. In that, he succeeded magnificently.
Bob Duncan was an individual of quiet leadership and great wisdom. His kindness and generosity were displayed in ways large and small — never with fanfare, but always with relevance.
There are honest men. There are thoughtful men. There are humble men. But there are few who embody all of these characteristics so genuinely, and with such humor and grace.
Judge Duncan left a legacy that will not be replicated. Instead, it must be wholly celebrated. Our duty, in return, is to follow the path he blazed.”
By Nancy H. Rogers, Professor Emeritus of Law, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law:
“The list of offices Judge Robert Duncan held, though impressive, seems to miss the point of what made him a giant among us. When Judge Duncan held public office, he appreciated the weight of the decisions he was making.
Though uncommonly wise, he also worried; he was humble and intent on choosing the right path. Once he made a decision, nothing could shake his integrity or courage.
I asked Judge Duncan a few months ago which of his positions he most enjoyed. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said. He did not like to talk about himself. ‘I came closest to thinking I might be doing some good when I was on the municipal court bench.’ On a different day, Judge Duncan might have selected a different position to highlight. On every day, though, his measure of his own enjoyment would have been how much he could contribute, not the prestige the office carried or its prerogatives.
Judge Duncan’s unwavering dedication to making a positive difference was part of what made him a giant. That quality also led individuals of all political persuasions to rely on the sincerity and depth of his counsel. His criticisms were expressed with stories and humor. When Judge Duncan gave a compliment, it mattered. As a result, he became what his former law clerk Suzanne Richards ’74 called a ‘positive force’ in the lives of hundreds of others, including many of Ohio’s lawyers. Mentoring was another aspect of his dedication to contributing, another part of what made Judge Duncan a giant.”
By Yvette McGee Brown ’85, former Ohio Supreme Court Justice and Partner at Jones Day:
“I had the pleasure of knowing Bob Duncan for more than 30 years. I met him when I was 17 years old and had the audacity to call a federal judge and ask him why he was ordering us to change schools.
From that day forward, he was my friend and mentor. Bob never sought the spotlight and was embarrassed when it shined on him.
He was a man of firsts, who demonstrated not only superior intellect but a genuineness of spirit that is rare for someone so accomplished.
The Bob Duncan I had the privilege of knowing was a man who was gracious and generous. The man who called me with encouragement and once told me,
‘I could not be prouder of you if you were my own daughter.’ Those words I will always cherish.
He was the man who every year sponsored a reception for African-American law students to remind them of their obligation to be excellent. The man who always took time for young people; loved his family, loved the law, and loved Ohio State. He established a scholarship fund at the Moritz College of Law and rarely missed an OSU football or basketball game. In fact, he was in the hospital the week before the opening football game, and when I called to see how he was doing, his only concern was that he be released from the hospital in time to attend the game.
Bob Duncan was more than my friend. He was the father I never had. He lived his life with dignity, never forgetting his Urbana roots. Everyone he touched was better for having come into contact with Bob. He leaves an incredible legacy of scholarship and achievement. I will miss him so very much.”
By Michael T. Spencer ’06, Labor and Employee Relations Specialist, The District of Columbia Department of Health:
“My friendship with Judge Duncan began in January 2003 when we happened to sit next to each other at a Kappa Alpha Psi Founder’s Day Celebration.
I did not have that foresight to predict that our incidental meeting would result in a nine-year friendship that would profoundly mold me into the man I am today and hope to be tomorrow.
I will always be thankful for the privilege of having Judge Duncan as a mentor, role model, friend, and surrogate grandfather. During my last year, I wrote a case study on Judge Duncan’s life, for Professor Garry Jenkins’s Lawyers as Leaders course, and spent countless hours talking to his colleagues and friends, researching his jurisprudence, and engaging the judge in an interview akin to Inside the Actors Studio sans the audience. The following words are my tribute to our beloved Judge Robert Morton Duncan:
The gift that Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass bestowed upon the world; one of the ‘exceptional men’ that W.E.B. DuBois inducted into the Talented Tenth; classmate of Barbara Jordan, Constance Baker Motley, and Thurgood Marshall; the prototype for legal excellence and civic engagement; Ohio’s very own Madiba, and the Conscience of Columbus.
Husband. Father. Friend. Servant. Hero. Icon.”