Top Tier: 25 Noteworthy Alumni
Top Tier: 25 Noteworthy Alumni

Top Tier

25 Noteworthy Alumni
June 1, 2009

One publication is interestingly entwined with the history of Duke Magazine—mental_floss, cofounded by 2001 graduates Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur and the subject of a Duke Magazine feature in 2004 ("Son of Einstein: Mad Magazine Meets Smithsonian"). Pearson is on the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board; Hattikudur was in the seminar taught by the magazine's editor. With just a couple of suggestions from Duke Magazine, the mental_floss team set about creating a list of the twenty-five Duke alumni who have made the greatest impact as significant achievers. It's a list that represents a striking range of involvement; it's also a list that necessarily omits many others with Duke ties and records of impressive accomplishment.

Les Brown '36

Under his direction, the Blue Devils dance band toured the East Coast and even cut an album. After graduating, formed his Band of Renown and hired an unknown vocalist named Doris Day. Performed with the biggest acts of the day, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat "King" Cole.

Richard Nixon LL.B. '37

At Duke, earned the nickname "Iron Butt," owing to his many hours of study in the law library. As 37th President, he invaded Cambodia, opened diplomatic relations with China, oversaw the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and resigned with the Watergate scandal.

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans '39, Hon. '83

The granddaughter of Benjamin N. Duke, James B. Duke's brother, she entered Duke at age fifteen. She was active in Durham politics, serving as mayor pro tem and city council repre-sentative. Her many philanthropic activities include The Duke Endowment, where she was president and chair of the board of directors; The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, established by her mother; and, with husband (and Duke urologist), James Semans, several eponymous foundations supporting scholarships and the arts.

William Styron '47, Hon. '68

Unenthusiastically enrolled at Duke as part of his training for the U.S. Marine Corps. English professor William Blackburn took him under his wing. His National Book Award-winning novel, Sophie's Choice, was based on a woman he knew at a Brooklyn boardinghouse. As a white Southerner, he was criticized for The Confessions of Nat Turner, but the book was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1968. Donated his papers to Duke.

Clay Felker '51, Hon. '98

In the Duke library, became absorbed in the narrative power of Civil War-era newspapers and was editor of The Chronicle. From there he joined Life magazine as a sports writer, helped to conceive Sports Illustrated, andl ater took on editorial positions with Esquire. Widely seen as a magazine visionary, he fostered the talents of Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, Nora Ephron, and Jimmy Breslin, among many others. His main achievement: parlaying a supplement to the Sunday Herald-Tribune into New York magazine, the first city magazine.

Dick Groat '53

A two-sport standout in baseball and basketball, he was the first Dukie to have his jersey retired to the rafters of Duke Indoor Stadium. A five-time All-Star in the major leagues and the 1960 MVP, he spent most of his career playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and also spent a year as a professional basketball player.

Charles "Lefty" Driesell '54

The southpaw played Blue Devil basketball with designs on teaching the game to others. Became one of the winningest coaches in NCAA history. By the time he retired, in 2003, his teams at Davidson, Maryland, James Madison, and Georgia State had won a combined 786 games.

Sylvia Earle A.M. '56, Ph.D. '66, Hon. '93

Widely considered the "new" Jacques Cousteau, world-renowned oceanographer Earle wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on aquatic plant life in the Gulf of Mexico. During her career exploring the ocean depths, was chief scientist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association; currently Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society.

Elizabeth Hanford Dole '58, Hon. '00

A member of the Duke Glee Club and Chapel Choir and known to friends and family as "Liddy." Served as FTC commissioner under Presidents Ford and Carter, as transportation secretary under Reagan, and as labor secretary under President George H.W. Bush. Headed the American Red Cross through the 1990s, then became North Carolina's first female senator.

Eleanor Smeal '61, Hon. '91

Pushed for integration of Duke during her years on campus and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. A leader of the modern feminist movement, she served two stints as president of the National Organization for Women. Her successes span the integration of Little League Baseball and the founding of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which publishes Ms.

Anne Tyler '61

Entered Duke at age sixteen and graduated three years later with a major in Russian. A member of the first class taught at the university by Reynolds Price '55, she started writing her first novel (If Morning Ever Comes) as a way to occupy her time while she was job-hunting. In 1986,won a National Book Critics Circle award for The Accidental Tourist. Later, Breathing Lessons netted the reclusive author a Pulitzer Prize for literature.

John Adams LL.B. '62, Hon. '05

According to Adams, when he graduated from Duke, environmental law did not exist. After five years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Adams, together with a small group of lawyers, founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, in 1970. He served as executive director and, later, as president of the nonprofit conservation group, until 2006.

Ricardo Lagos A.M. '63, Ph.D. '66, Hon. '05

Lagos came to America to earn his economics Ph.D. in 1966 and, here, joins Nixon on the list of Blue Devil Leaders of Nations. After six years with the UN, he was detained in Chile after like-minded politicos attempted to assassinate the country's dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, in 1986.Was elected president of Chile in 2000 and served one term.

Robert C. Richardson Ph.D. '66

Richardson considered Cornell, Harvard, and MIT for graduate school, but landed at Duke, thanks to a letter of support from physicist Horst Meyer, then a young assistant professor. With two colleagues, discovered the super fluidity of helium-3 at very low temperatures, which won the trio the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics.

John Mack '68

Won a football scholarship to Duke, where he was a history major. To earn extra money, turned his dorm room into a makeshift snack shop, offering hungry students treats from his family's grocery store. Worked as a securities clerk at Morgan Stanley his junior year and was recruited by the company upon graduation. Now CEO and chair of the board.

Judy Woodruff '68, Hon. '98

Active in student government as an undergraduate (and later a Duke trustee), Woodruff first sought a career on Capitol Hill. She ended up in an Atlanta newsroom, and less than a decade later, was chief White House correspondent for NBC News. Moved to The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour on PBS in the '80s, where she was chief Washington correspondent. After leaving to host Inside Politics on CNN, returned to PBS, where she is now senior correspondent for The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

Kenneth Starr J.D. '73

Clerked for Chief Justice Warren Burger before going into private practice and cowrote the syllabus for Duke's first poverty-law class. Appointed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by President Reagan. In 1998, compiled the re port that led to the impeachment of President Clinton.

Charles E. "Chuck" Brady Jr. M.D. '75

Native North Carolinian worked as a team physician for various universities, then took on a new challenge in1985—the U.S. Navy. Trained as a flight surgeon and joined the fabled Blue Angels. Tapped by NASA to become an astronaut, flew aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia mission STS-78 in 1996.

Rick Wagoner '75

Was a walk-on reserve on Duke's last freshman basketball team, but never made varsity. Elected chair and CEO of General Motors in 2003. After weathering criticism during the automotive bailout hearings, he was asked to resign in March by the Obama administration, as part of the company's restructuring program.

Eric Shinseki A.M. '76

Earned a master's in English literature while recovering from an injury sustained during his second tour of duty in Vietnam, when a land mine blew off part of his foot. Became the first Asian-American four-star general in American military history. Was appointed U.S. Army Chief of Staff in 1999 and earned notoriety for questioning the idea that Iraq could be won over with a small military force; became Secretary of Veterans Affairs earlier this year.

Sean McManus '77

Followed his father—Jim McKay, host of ABC's Wide World of Sports—into TV news and sports, first with ABC and then CBS. Went on to become president of both CBS Sports and CBS News. Of particular importance to Dukies: In 1999, he locked up a long-term contract giving the network the rights to broadcast the NCAA's men's basketball tournament championship through 2014.

Roy Underhill M.F. '77

In lieu of a master's thesis in environmental studies, he held a live presentation titled "How to Start With a Tree and an Axe and Build Your House and Everything in It." Became Colonial Williamsburg's first master housewright. For thirty years, has hosted The Woodwright's Shop on PBS. Considered the nation's leading authority on traditional woodworking techniques and has published six books on the subject.

Paul Farmer '82

While in Durham, Farmer discovered the works of social-medicine pioneer Rudolf Virchow and devoted himself tot he plight of the poor. Enrolled in Harvard Medical School and set off for central Haiti, establishing a small clinic and treating the poorest of the poor. Cofounded a small charity called Partners In Health to support his efforts against infectious diseases, which now has a growing number of international program sites. Was the subject of Tracy Kidder's 2004 best seller, Mountains Beyond Mountains.

Melinda French Gates '86, M.B.A. '87

A campus tour guide and economics and computer science double-major while an undergrad at Duke. Through the Gates Foundation, she and her husband, Bill, have pursued philanthropic efforts, leading to their selection as Time magazine's "Persons of the Year" in 2005.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar '86

Won three gold medals and one silver at the 1984 Olympics, then became spokesperson for the American Lung Association when asthma cut her competitive career short. Went on to earn a J.D. from Georgetown. Teaches at Florida Coastal School of Law, where she specializes in gender equity in school athletics. In 1994, became first woman inducted into Duke's Sports Hall of Fame.

Reader-submitted suggestions

  • Please include Charlie Rose '64, J.D. '68. He is such an influential newsman today and has been for almost 20 years. He certainly deserves to be in your Top Tier. —Lynn Yarnall Moore Fox '64 Oakton, Va.
  • I would like to add Charlie Rose '64, J.D. '68 to the list. —Jeannette Kinnikin Rinehart '51 Hagerstown, Md. 
  • Charlie Rose '64, J.D. '68 is much more deserving of recognition than Ken Starr. —Richard C. Webster '51, LL.B. '53 Denver 
  • Peter Nicholas ('64). You are way off the mark by leaving Pete off the list. —Phil Perine '64 Las Vegas 
  • How about John Chambers (E '71), CEO of CISCO? —Joe Chudecki B.S.E. '72 Avon, Conn.