Duke to be honored as First Citizen

Published 8:04 pm Saturday, September 24, 2016

Lydia Duke grew up miles from Suffolk on a farm in the hills of Mississippi, where her parents taught her to say “ma’am” and “sir” and her mother always baked pies to take to those who needed to know someone cared about them.

The values her parents instilled in her — empathy, work ethic and doing what’s right — have served her well in Suffolk, where her first husband’s illness and death at a young age left her running a business in a predominantly male sector at the age of 41.

That was in 1989. She came to work the day after she buried her husband, Eley Duke, whose parents had started Duke Oldsmobile-Cadillac Corporation with a $5,000 loan in 1969, purchasing the business where the elder Duke had worked.

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Lydia Duke assured the 28 employees that everything would be OK.

“I’m sure they were wondering, ‘Should we go get our resumes ready?’” Duke said recently.

ydia Duke will be honored as First Citizen this Thursday beginning at 6 p.m. at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.

Lydia Duke will be honored as First Citizen this Thursday beginning at 6 p.m. at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.

She stayed home with her children until school started again after Labor Day. She then returned to work, hanging up her former role as a teacher at Andrew J. Brown Elementary School and becoming the student.

“I humbly asked, ‘Will you please help me?’” she said.

Duke started in the service department and spent six months in each department, learning how to perform every job necessary to run the dealership.

“Whatever you take on in life, you’ve got to have passion,” Duke said.

Her passion was to make sure the family name stayed on the front of the building.

“I want to do things that will live after I’m gone, because I’m only here for a short time.”

There have been times in the last decade when it didn’t look like that might happen.

“After we survived 2008, I thought, ‘You know, we might make it,’” Duke said recently.

Through the good times and the bad, those who work for her clearly admire her. One 24-year employee, Priscilla Taylor, nominated Duke for the First Citizen award after getting the idea from Duke’s cousin.

“Lydia and I have very, very different personalities,” Taylor said. “The one thing we are completely in sync on is that Lydia and I are of the same mind when it comes to that we’re going to do what’s right. We’re so in sync that way in terms of trying to be fair to the customer or the employee.”

Taylor said the entire Duke family makes Duke Automotive a good place to work.

“It’s been a situation that I don’t think many people have the benefit of having in their workplace these days,” she said. “A place that’s solid and you can feel good about going to work; and the people you work with have your back; and you have the latitude to do a good job. I don’t think it gets any better in a workplace than that.”

Taylor said Sue Draper Lowe, Duke’s first cousin, called her and said they should do the nomination.

Lowe, who settled in Suffolk with her first husband when he was in the military, was the reason Duke came to Suffolk. She would stay during the summers and help with the children.

While Duke was staying in Suffolk, Gin Staylor became friends with her and arranged a blind date for her new friend and Eley Duke, whom she knew from high school.

“Eley asked if I could get him a date with somebody, and Lydia was the logical choice,” Staylor said.

Staylor also admires Duke’s business acumen.

“She has great skills with knowing customer service,” Staylor said. “I believe that she always puts the customer first.”

But it has been Duke’s non-business activities that have really earned her the First Citizen award. But nothing Duke or the business does is for recognition, said her son, R. Eley Duke III.

“We’re not interested in a lot of recognition,” he said. “We’re interested in seeing that our community betters itself.”

Duke is a past chairperson of the board of directors for Paul D. Camp Community College, served on the board of directors for Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of South Hampton Roads, serves on the Southern Bank Advisory Board for Hampton Roads, served on Obici Hospital’s Ethics Board, and supported numerous local charities and school programs.

She has been a member of the Suffolk Rotary Club for 20 years and a member of Main Street United Methodist Church for 44 years.

“Her faith is something that’s very important to her,” Eley Duke said.

Through it all, Duke has cared for her second husband, Bill Hevener, who has Parkinson’s disease. She’s gotten involved in a Parkinson’s support group.

“Nobody ever thinks about the things you did 10 and 12 years ago, because we live in such a ‘now’ society,” Eley Duke said. “She’s done a lot in the school system that people may not really recognize.”

Lydia Duke has been involved in a program that taught young ladies about how to dress for a job interview, set a table and write thank-you notes, among other things. The dealership invites young people each year to come in the afternoon and learn how to file papers and answer phones.

She was very involved with the Hampton Roads Youth Center, for which she won the Ray of Hope Award in 2004, as well as Paul D. Camp Community College. In 2006, she won the Virginia Community College Systems Chairman’s Award for Service.

Lydia Duke said she’s excited to be the First Citizen honoree not because of the recognition but because the event raises money for scholarships given each year.

“I am appreciative of this opportunity to share part of my life with the community and to thank them for the things they’ve shared with me,” she added.

Duke added that those ethics her parents taught her while delivering pies have served her well in business and in life.

“Every day, you do what’s right, and you use the best work ethics like my mother taught me and my father taught me, and you surround yourself with the best people,” she said.

Duke will be honored during a reception this Thursday at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts. Reservations for the event are available at www.suffolkrotary.org.