Duke Flags Lowered: Longtime Duke Historian Robert Durden Dies at Age 90

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Robert Durden taught history classes at Duke for 49 years.

Longtime Duke history professor Robert Durden, who wrote the definitive study of the Duke family and the founding of Duke University, died March 4. He was 90. 

"Bob Durden was a brilliant historian and fine leader of the Department of History for more than three decades,” said William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor Emeritus of History. “His scholarship helped illuminate the history of Duke University from its founding to the present, while his books on the American South informed a generation of American historians. He had a grace, a charm and a dedication to Duke and its history that enhanced all of us."

Born May 10, 1925, in Graymont, Georgia, he went to Emory University but interrupted his study to serve as an Navy ensign in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he returned to Emory to complete his bachelor's and master's degrees in American history. He then received his Ph.D. from Princeton University.

He married Anne Oller Durden in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, in 1952. Their honeymoon was the drive to Durham where Durden took up his teaching position at Duke. He taught American history for 49 years at Duke, writing many books, the most remembered being “The Dukes of Durham.” Published by Duke University Press, the book is the history of Washington Duke and two of his sons, Benjamin Newton Duke and James Buchanan Duke. 

In 1993, he published “The Launching of Duke University, 1924-1949,” beginning with its creation in 1924 as a new institution organized around Trinity College. The focus on the university's most formative and critical years showcased the efforts of President William Preston Few, his successes and the painful challenges that faced the young institution.

“Robert Durden contributed deeply to our knowledge of Duke University, the Duke Family and North Carolina,” said University Archivist Valerie Gillispie. “He meticulously combed through innumerable primary sources, weaving together complex stories in a detailed but highly readable way. His books sit within arm's reach at the University Archives -- the first place we check when answering a question is ‘Durden,’ and we can always rely on the accuracy of his text and citations. His passing is a loss to historians, researchers and everyone who loves Duke and its stories.”

Durden’s favorite place was the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, where his ashes will be placed next to his wife Anne's in April. A reception for family and friends will be held there following the internment. The date will be announced later.

He is survived by two daughters, two grand-daughters and three great-grandsons.