Long-time Activist and Community Icon Reflects on Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

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Wednesday, June 12, 2019, 7:35 am
Ann Kammerer

John Duley set out to be a farmer. But instead of tilling soil, Duley cultivated pathways for spiritual, social and civil good.

At 98 years old, Duley (pictured above, at home in East Lansing) is far from retired. The former campus minister and faculty member at Michigan State University stays involved as a community organizer, civil rights activist and spiritual leader through blogging, church groups, and advising area nonprofits.

“We often talk about our experiences at our men’s group in church,” Duley said. “I said I saw myself as a facilitator who made things happen with people who want to make a change. And a person said, ‘but you also had a vision.’ I think that’s true. I had a vision that good things can happen when we establish community. And they did.”

Duley was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1948 and came to East Lansing in 1962. He worked at the university until 1982. His MSU legacy includes developing and advising the Student Tutorial Education Project (STEP) at Rust College in Mississippi from 1965-68. The collaborative program engaged about 100 MSU students and faculty who volunteered to get the all-black college fully accredited, prep incoming students for academic success, and build cultural programming for area youth. Duley also ran a cross-cultural learning program at MSU that pioneered the national service-learning movement.

In East Lansing, Duley’s name became synonymous with fair housing. His passion ignited in the early ‘60s when he learned of the City’s housing “covenant” that restricted the sale or lease of any lot, building or home to any race other than Caucasian. Duley set out to change that by petitioning the City with the backing of Edgewood United Church. With continued pressure, the City rescinded the covenant and passed an open housing ordinance.

Duley’s focus on housing and education from the ’60s through ’90s continues to affect the lives of the poor, low-income and homeless. His founding of Greater Lansing Housing Coalition in the late ‘80s, and his development of Edgewood Village and the Edgewood Village Scholars Program, are hallmarks of his commitment to equal opportunity, education and social justice.

East Lansing Info recently sat down with Duley to reflect on his early life, his inspirations, and what he’s up to today. He spoke to us from his apartment in East Lansing, surrounded by family pictures, his books and computer, and small symbols and artworks that reflect his spiritual values.

What can you share about your early life? How do you think it charted your path?

I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1920. My mother had been raised in a very strict Methodist family, and had been part of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement. She went with her mother to prayer meetings on Wednesdays. Sometimes they stopped in front of the saloon to pray that the saloon keeper would change it to a grocery store.

My parents had a weekend farm with another family. I really enjoyed being there, so when I got older, I decided I wanted to recreate that for my own family someday. During my last year in high school, I started working in a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse to save money to go to college and study agriculture. I got paid 18 cents an hour and worked 60 hours a week. Eventually, someone pointed out to my employer that the U.S. had labor laws, so he cut my hours, raised me to 25 cents, and laid me off in February.

After that job ended, I got hired by the gas and electric company to do field surveys. I got paid 50 cents an hour, so it wasn’t too long before I had enough to enroll at Ohio State University in the College of Agriculture. In my sophomore year, the associate dean of the agricultural college set me down to see what I wanted to do. I told him my dream about owning a farm, and about how I had been working with a youth group. He asked me a lot of hard questions about farming and I answered no to all of them. He said that I better drop out of the agriculture program and enroll in the school of social work to get a degree in recreation. It was a hard blow to hear him suggest I go “learn how to play” after I had worked all those long hours to save money for college! But it all turned out extremely well.

What else led you to a life of service?

I participated in a Quaker work camp in Indiana during my first year at Ohio State and had a Quaker roommate. He was a big influence on me, and was uneasy about serving in World War II. Although I had a deferment as a candidate for the ministry and was leaning toward taking it, I decided I couldn’t. When I graduated from Ohio State, I volunteered for the U.S. Army and served 30 months in the European Theater as medic in the infantry division.

When I got out of the service, I was eager to get to work. I went straight through the seminary in New York state and was ordained as a teaching minister in the Presbyterian Church. After being a campus minister at Penn State for seven years, I did a year’s sabbatical at Cambridge University to learn more about the clergy, laity and community service. That same year, I became a member of the Iona Community in Scotland — a group dedicated to working for peace and justice around the world. That experience shaped my theological voice. I knew I was called to work with people to facilitate their work in peace and justice.

What did you notice about East Lansing when you moved here?

When I arrived, I was concerned about an ordinance that made it illegal to sell homes to anyone other than Caucasians. I joined people including Pastor Truman Morrison at Edgewood United Church and rallied with others to pressure the City to appoint a human relations commission. Once that happened, we began pressuring commission members to recommend to East Lansing City Council to cancel the housing ordinance. In 1968, legislation was created that allowed people of color to purchase homes in East Lansing.

What stands out to you about the students who volunteered for the Rust College initiative?

I learned that what makes ordinary people do extraordinary things is their values. Every one of those nearly 100 students who went to Mississippi for five weeks in the summer were very clear about what they valued and believed. Just going to Mississippi during that time of unrest was extraordinary. In fact, these students were already extraordinary people who wanted to volunteer and do more.

I will say that recruiting students to go was made easier when Dr. Martin Luther King came to campus. After I had returned from the initial visit to Rust College, my MSU colleague Robert Green turned to me and said, ‘why don’t you write Dr. King and invite him to help launch the program?’ I did that and followed up with Dr. King 10 days later. His secretary answered the phone and said he would come in February. His visit and presentation at MSU inspired a lot of students. A month later in March 1965, the Selma experience happened. That’s a whole other story.

So you participated in marches and voter registration efforts during the height of the Civil Rights movement. What was that like?

It was very frightening. I had grown up in a middle class American family where you turned to the police when you needed help. That wasn’t how I felt when Bob Green, Truman Morrison and I went to Selma to ready for protest marches led by Dr. King to Montgomery. We faced deputies down and got authorization for the march to go on. I was scared to death, but during times like that you work through the fear and do it.

For me, I came to believe that I live with the ever present expectation of the intrusion of the unexpected. Things happen that have nothing to do with yourself. That’s become the real frame of reference I’ve worked from ever since those times. It became a reality for me, and defines each and every experience.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve been doing some writing and reflecting on my work, experiences and my life. I was invited to write a blog by MSU and the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology. I’ve also started back writing my autobiography. I began writing that when I was 73 years old in 1993. I also write a little bit of poetry.

Aside from that, I have an exercise class four days a week. I’m learning how to use voice activated computer software to make working with my computer easier. I visit and attend meetings at Edgewood Village. And I’m in a book club with MSU retired faculty. Right now we’re reading Cory Booker’s “United.” It’s a powerful book.

You’ll be 99 in November, right? What are some of your earliest memories?

When I was 5, my family moved from Cincinnati to the outskirts. I remember we moved back when my dad discovered a still in the neighborhood. But what I remember a lot and what were really important experiences for me were the times spent with extended family on the farm just north of Cincinnati. We did a lot of camping. We walked down a gravel road to swim. We would go into the woods. We would lay under the sky to watch clouds or the stars. It was life-changing.

What do you take the greatest comfort in?

I have a wonderful family. I married Betty in 1944, right after the war. She passed away in 2010. We had four children. Kathy, my oldest, was killed by a drunk driver a few years ago. Judy is the second oldest, and we have two boys: John and Peter. Judy and John live close by, and Peter lives in Massachusetts. I like children and working with them. Children are the ones who will take what we have to offer. It’s important to leave them a good world.

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