I recently watched Charlie Rose interview Penelope Cruz on 60 Minutes. I was reminded of the gift and the curse of having gone to Duke. As a frightened freshman and not much more confident sophomore in the early ’60s, I remember watching a young Charlie Rose march purposefully across campus: tall, skinny but confident, carrying way too many books, always dressed (slightly uncool) in a white short sleeve shirt and dark trousers, seemingly interacting with everyone he met in intense dialogue. Sound familiar?
Duke weighed heavy then on the sub par students like me struggling to make C’s. (Doubt I’d even get in now.) We watched the Phi Beta Kappa girls, slightly drunk, dancing on tables in local restaurants, and wondered in amazement… “You can act that stupid and still be that smart?” A classmate I spoke to daily became ambassador to England. Another classmate I traveled with on a student summer program gave $50 million to Duke a few years ago. Another friend, a young girl with wit and wisdom, addressed the United Nations years later and still defends women’s rights around the globe. They say, “don’t compare yourself to others,” but we all do. I struggled to survive. My shining post graduate achievement of the early ’70s was to rebuild my Volkswagen engine, piston by piston… and single-handedly change its ever failing clutch. So, the comparative height of self-esteem disparity, the unkindest cut of all, was to watch Charlie Rose interview Penelope Cruz. I pulled my 1964 Duke yearbook off the shelf, and found the fellow, looking purposeful to be sure, but as unaware as any of us of what the future held, particularly whom he would be sitting with 46 years later in a cafe in Spain.
Whether we made A’s or C’s we all benefited from outstanding professors, ones who made history, or at least said they did. My political science prof, advisor to three presidents, spoke of his exalted influence on Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights efforts. Another promised to be the next great American novelist, composing the longest opening sentence in storytelling history. As his career in fiction later waned, he found religion and claimed to have seen Jesus. When asked what he looked like, he replied, “just like the pictures.”
Self-esteem hits come from all directions, and we gather tools for handling them over a lifetime. Our Walter Mitty fantasies of grandeur come and go, and we handle that too. But, to see that skinny kid from a Henderson tobacco farm sitting in a Spanish cafe interviewing one of the earth’s most delicious creatures was a most unfair twist of the dagger. I had “studied” (euphemistically put) a few Penelope Cruz movies, and even understood them, so I imagined, better than Charlie. He didn’t even mention Elegy, one of her most poetically sensual yet cerebral, even spiritual efforts. He did gush over Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but I was sure I got every nuance of Woody Allen’s story more clearly than Charlie.
And, he asked personal, nosy questions about the Penelope/Tom Cruise romance which she, of course, dodged. He might have as much surmised that their split was over the realization that a “Cruz-Cruise” offspring would suffer too much grade school hazing. I think I could have helped him a bit with the interview. But, he didn’t ask, and I can imagine that was one of those days Charlie traveled home from work with fists raised to the sky shouting, “I love my job.”
Some say, today, that Duke isn’t even a part of North Carolina, but in the ’60s this tobacco-fed gothic pile of stone was very southern, for better or worse. My freshman class was the last to deny African-Americans admittance. Though gentlemanly tolerant and liberal back then in the manner that current professor Tim Tyson abhors, Duke instead “coulda been a contender,” a trail blazer admitting our black neighbors 20 or 30 years ahead of time. Who’s to say that Buck Duke lying entombed like a pope in the Chapel would not have approved.
Duke has changed, of course, as has North Carolina, and Duke is as much a part of our state as any other part. North Carolina is the sum of all its parts. There is no “real” as opposed to “alien” aspect of our state. If it’s in our borders, it’s us. There is a certain sense of “self-importance” in some circles, which I try to avoid. I’m more attracted to the crowd that sees us all as “just folks” and ignores rank and titles. You know, you can’t beat our motto, To be rather than to seem.
When I first sat in the men’s freshman assembly at Duke, the dean said, “Look to your left, look to your right. One of you won’t graduate.” He forgot to say, “and one of you will be king for a day.” He also could have added, and “one of you will just be an ordinary ‘good enough’ guy.. and that’s OK.”
Check out Bill Phillips’ blog: North Carolina People & Places.