We Remember John Belton Duncan
John Belton Duncan, born November 17, 1936 in Haskell, Texas to John Belton Duncan, Sr. and Lucille Kendall Duncan, died peacefully February 5, 2019, in Austin, Texas, after a 17-year struggle against Alzheimer’s.
John was a quiet, strong leader. He graduated from Haskell High School in 1955, where he was an officer in the senior class and captain of the football team. He ran track at Austin College, receiving his bachelor’s degree in economics in 1959, and was president of the Drake fraternity. He did his doctoral work at Tulane University in New Orleans, in an advanced economics program sponsored by the US State Department. He developed lifelong friends in that program, and at the same time, developed a lifelong love of New Orleans. It was in New Orleans that he became a gourmet cook (which prevented his children from starving in later years). He first taught at Xavier University and Loyola University there. He married Sara Holderbaum in 1960, and they divorced in 1975.
John joined the economics faculty at Austin College, his alma mater, in 1963. He accepted a position as a professor at Texas Tech University in 1965 and taught economics and price theory until 1973. He was legend among economics majors as the most entertaining, but most rigorous professor in the department. John and Sara had a daughter, Jennifer Rebecca, in 1968, and it was then that John began his second career as best dad. While in Lubbock, John was a leader in the faculty Senate at Tech and the faculty movement against the Vietnam War, and during that time, he was elected President of the Texas Civil Liberties Union.
In 1974, John became Executive Director of the TCLU, and he moved to Austin, where he would live until his death. During John’s tenure at the TCLU, his work with the Texas legislature and courts sealed his reputation as an articulate, persistent and effective advocate for social justice and equal opportunity, a passion he never lost. John’s keen intellect, easygoing manner, impeccable integrity and understated wit made him effective with both sides of the political aisle, and he was admired even by those who strongly disagreed with his message. Soon after moving to Austin, John became a fixture in the group of Austin liberals, lawyers and literati who could be found debating anything of only esoteric import at Scholz Garten, the Raw Deal, First Fridays, Emmajoe’s, and the Richards and Armstrong campouts.
On January 1, 1976, John married Becky Beaver, forming an indomitable team. Their love and devotion to one another was an example and inspiration. Becky could not have asked for a more loving, supportive, helpful and entertaining life companion. Shortly after they married, John and Becky purchased the home in Central Austin where they lived and raised their family over the next four decades. That home was John’s pride, solace, and spirit.
In 1985, John went to work for Texas Comptroller Bob Bullock as director of his legislative analysis group, where John’s calm approach provided the perfect workplace balance. John’s co-workers at the Comptroller’s office remained some of his closest friends. In 1989, John became executive assistant to Commissioner Jo Campbell at the Texas Public Utilities Commission, and continued in that role with Robert Gee, when he became chairman of the Commission. John was often dispatched to the legislature on behalf of the PUC, as he was one of the few people who could make a discussion of electric rate regulation and powerline easements both cogent and interesting.
John and Becky became the parents of twins, William Andrew and James Matthew, in 1988, and John again threw himself into the role of adoring father. In 1997, he retired and became a fulltime dad, time with their father his sons cherish. He spent endless hours supervising sleepovers, at Northwest Little League and in gyms and auditoriums cheering on his sons, and driving carpools while tormenting their friends with his incessant puns.
John and Becky travelled extensively with their children, which John documented as an excellent photographer. The family visited over 50 countries together, and even after John was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, they continued to travel for years. He made his last trip with the family to Southeast Asia a year before his death.
John and Becky forged a strong partnership and were long active in Austin and Texas civic and political life, supporting innumerable non-profits, ballot initiatives and Democratic candidates (although John would have happily skipped every event which required he wear a tux). John never missed an election, last voting in November 2018. For four decades he was a devoted attendee of Longhorn football (including both Rose Bowls), men’s and women’s basketball and baseball games. In his spare time, John also repaired the family’s cars, built furniture, remodeled their home, and landscaped the yard.
John attacked Alzheimer’s full force. He was a marathon runner, and he spent countless hours in the gym and on the hike and bike trail, standing down the disease. He remained engaged and active in every aspect of life until the middle of last year, running his last loop on Lady Bird Lake in June. John was named Care Partner of the Year in 2017 by Alzheimer’s Texas for his refusal to capitulate to the disease.
His father and mother, Belton and Lucille, predeceased him as did his brother, David Duncan, and his sister, Jean Duncan Barnett. John is survived by his wife, Becky Beaver of Austin; a daughter, Jennifer Duncan and her husband, James Sanders of Logan, Utah; sons, William Andrew Duncan of San Antonio and James Matthew Duncan and his wife, Abigail Spellmann Duncan, of Spicewood; granddaughter, Chloe Sanders of Logan, Utah; sister-in-law, Molly Morriss Duncan of Austin; and several nieces and nephews.
John was the world’s true good guy, a Renaissance man, slow to anger, loving life, enriching all he touched. John’s family is ever grateful to the village which wrapped John in its love and care, especially to Sandra Whittington, John’s longtime caregiver; Randeen Torvik Ragan, who kept him running; Ellen Adams, his cognitive therapist; Cheryl Rabb and the other memory care staff members of the Pavilion at Great Hills, who nurtured him through his last months; and the staff members of Texas Home Health Hospice, who saw him through his final days.
In lieu of flowers, John’s family asks that you consider a donation in his memory to the ACLU of Texas, the Texas Democracy Foundation/Texas Observer, the Trail Foundation or the DKR Foundation for Alzheimer’s Research.
John’s memorial service is scheduled on Sunday, February 17, 2019, at 1 p.m. at the Four Seasons Hotel, 98 San Jacinto Street, Austin, Texas, with a reception celebrating his life to follow.
We Remember Frank Denius
In July 2018, we said goodbye to decorated WWII hero and loyal Longhorn, Frank Denius. For decades, Denius rarely missed a football practice and attended every home & away football game. A great friend of Darrell and Edith, and a valued member of the DKR Fund Board of Advisors, he will truly be missed in the Austin and Longhorn communities.