Leslie Criss 6/15/10
C. Todd Sherman
Tupelo resident Vera Dukes taught high school English classes for more than 30 years before retiring. Now, she continues to stay involved by serving on the Lee County Library’s board of trustees. In Oct. 2008, she became the first African-American chairwoman.
Ma Dukes, keeping her head in the books
* The grandmother stays active in her role as a member of the Lee County Library administrative board of trustees.
By Carlie Kollath
TUPELO – Vera Dukes likes books. A lot.
Her love affair with them started at a young age when her older brother secretly taught her to read, much to the surprise of her mother.
“She was so shocked,” Dukes said with a smile. “She thought something was wrong with me. My momma used to say, ‘My poor baby. Something’s wrong with her brain.’ Ever since then, I’ve loved to read and write.”
Fast forward more than half a century and she’s still surrounding herself with books. The 73-year-old grandmother has stacks of them around her house. Her dog is even named Hamlet.
“Shakespeare’s my favorite writer,” she said, as she glanced over on the couch to make sure her elderly Cocker Spaniel was sleeping peacefully.
Along with the classics, she reads lots of other genres. She jokes that she has so many books in her house, she can’t keep up with all the titles.
“I’m really enjoying my retirement,” Dukes said. “I told myself if I ever got some free time, all I was going to do was read.”
When she’s not reading, she’s helping others read through her efforts at the Lee County Library, where she is a member of the administrative board of trustees. In October 2008, she made history at the library by becoming the first African-American chairwoman of the board, according to Jan Willis, the library director.
“I truly get wound up when I think that she went from being unable to come through the doors of the library to becoming the chairwoman of the library,” Willis said. “You just can’t make that up. That’s a great story.”
The library involvement is a natural transition for the popular retired English teacher, who taught at Carver when it was a high school and later at Tupelo High School until her retirement in 1995. Her students called her “Ma Dukes” not “Ms. Dukes,” she said.
She even taught Willis, who has been in charge of the library since 2004.
“I was on the board when Jan applied,” she said. “I was going to insist that that child got that job.”
Willis is one of the many students she brags on from her 34 years of teaching. Bring up other sectors of Tupelo life and Dukes has a story about a former student, even a high school standout who went on to play football at The University of Notre Dame.
When Jarious Jackson was being recruited, Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz visited the school and Dukes’ classroom. She still laughs as she recalls mistaking him for another coach. She then pulls out a letter Holtz wrote to her on Tupelo High stationery. It reads:
Hope I coach football as well as you teach English.
Her dedication to the students and her community has not gone unnoticed. Duke’s accolades decorate the walls of her living room.
She has a plaque for when she was named the favorite teacher at THS in 1994-1995 and another one when the Junior Auxiliary of Tupelo named her the outstanding citizen of the year in 2005. She was the organization’s first African-American honorary, according to ex-officio president Susie Morgan.
Another plaque proclaims “Mrs. Dukes” as “our most inspirational friend and teacher.”
She has numerous other plaques from the Association of the Elks, Springhill Missionary Baptist Church and Carver High School.
Along with reading, she’s also writing, working on her memoirs, which has a tentative title of “Sugarmeter – I am Somebody.”
She also keeps up with her children and her grandchildren, along with serving on the board of the Oren Dunn Museum.
“I always wanted to give back to the community like I’ve been given to and that’s why I’m involved,” she said. “I give free time.”
She downplays her activities, saying she used to be more involved in the community.
“I can’t sit still but I’ve slowed down some,” Dukes said, citing health concerns. “This has been a rough year for me. I’m old now and I’m tired. Actually, I just want to stay at home and get finished with my book.”
But, within an hour of saying that, she’s inquiring when the next library board meeting is, promising to be there.
Contact Carlie Kollath at (662) 678-1598 or firstname.lastname@example.org.