Don Duncan, ‘world’s oldest general assignment reporter,’ soldiers on

News Lab celebrates the 87th birthday of journalism veteran Don Duncan. Photo by Karen Rathe.

News Lab celebrates the 87th birthday of journalism veteran Don Duncan. Photo by Karen Rathe.

When the time comes to – you know – retire, many folks think sunny islands, margaritas, maybe a game of shuffleboard. But this was never Don Duncan’s vision. The Kirkland resident is a retired journalist who worked in the industry for 41 years. This month he celebrated his 87th birthday and he continues to give back to the community.

Duncan spoke recently to a journalism class at the University of Washington; he is a 1949 alum of the former School of Journalism.

Throughout his career Duncan received around 45 writing awards, two of them national; he has written two books and has had thousands of articles published over the decades. Many ran in The Seattle Times, where co-workers dubbed him “The World’s Oldest General Assignment Reporter.”

But it wasn’t all glamour, and things didn’t come easily to him. To better understand Duncan’s character, it helps to know his background. An important part of his life was his early childhood, which had a vital influence on him and his career.

“My father ran off before I was born,” Duncan said, and so his mother, who had very little education, raised him on her own. “In fact,” Duncan continued, “no one in my family (had) finished high school.”

Looking back, Duncan recalled a moment of his childhood when he was about 5 years old: His mom decided they would move to California. This was “way back in the ‘30s, in the heart of the Depression, when earning 35 cents a day was a lot of money,” he said.

“We walked the streets, my mother and I, with a little suitcase, and she would knock on doors and ask if they had any ironing to do, floors to scrub,” he said. “The only thing she asked in return for her work was to feed the boy, her son.”

“We ended up sleeping in a garage for a long time,” Duncan said, before they moved to Southern California where his mother found a job as a maid, working for someone in Hollywood. “She got 50 cents a day,” he added. At one point his mother had to put him in a rooming house while she was working, where he slept in a broom closet near the lobby. “The lady upstairs – for a dollar a week – gave me two meals,” he said.

Hanging out in the lobby all day, Duncan was surrounded by newspapers, and tried to read them. “I would ask the man at the desk what these words were, he would tell me, and then I would go back and sit down.”

Now imagine this moment: a little boy, in a rooming-house lobby, lost in the world of letters; his toys – newspapers. His curiosity toward the black printed words led to a lifelong career. From that moment on, Duncan knew he wanted to write.

He wrote his first official composition at age 9. As a present, he composed a poem for his mom for Mother’s Day.

His path and desire for writing led him to go to college and pursue his passion – journalism. After his graduation from the University of Washington, in 1949, Duncan worked for several newspapers, including the Tacoma News Tribune and The Seattle Times. He performed in a variety of roles: reporter, editor, columnist and for many years a general assignment reporter.

Today Duncan lives with the “love of his life,” his wife, Mary Duncan. She has enjoyed many aspects of Don’s career. One time, she recalled, he worked on a story about “some lovely gardens around the area – the Japanese garden in Portland, Ore.” She loved the trip because gardening is one of her passions. They have been married for 64 years.

Today Duncan continues to be active, in his personal and social life. He is frequently asked to help friends edit memoirs and books. He also volunteers through his church, St. Peter United Methodist, for the Salvation Army. Every month five church members go to the Army’s outlet in Bellevue and serve food to needy people. The event is called “The Crossroads Feeding.”

“We (he and Mary) make the spaghetti, and another fellow makes the sauce, and we put that with salad and other things,” Duncan said. Some of them come back for two or three more servings, he added. “I think you should be busy and give back to the community,” he continued.

Duncan has also sung in a church choir for close to 60 years; he and Mary sing there together. He goes every Thursday night for rehearsal, and every Sunday morning he sings Mozart or Beethoven. He also plays tennis “singles,” he said, once a week. One of his favorite things to do is give talks.

Lecturer Karen Rathe, who teaches Community News Lab for the UW Department of Communication’s journalism program, invited Duncan to speak to her class. They worked together for a number of years at The Seattle Times.

Rathe describes “Dunc” as the “ultimate storyteller” and “a wonderful role model.’’ His curiosity about people is reflected in his stories and drives their success, she added.

Sarah Radmer, a student in News Lab, said she was impressed with Duncan’s positive attitude and storytelling; she said she found it motivating to hear his many fascinating stories.

Duncan had some advice for the young journalists soon to enter the field: have ideas, know your questions, and be a precise writer.

By Simona Trakiyska

UW News Lab

Hear more from Don Duncan on the COMMunity Building blog>>

"The World's Oldest General Assignment Reporter," a name Duncan picked up at The Seattle Times. Photo by Karen Rathe.

“The World’s Oldest General Assignment Reporter,” a name Duncan picked up at The Seattle Times. Photo by Karen Rathe.