Valdosta Daily Times

March 15, 2013

VSU’s chef Earnest ‘Earnie’ Duncan passes away

Brittany D. McClure
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Valdosta State University lost a valued member of their family on Thursday with the passing of long-time catering chef Earnest Duncan, Sr., affectionately referred to as “Earnie”.

“For those who have had the honor of meeting Earnie, they all know that he is positively unforgettable,” said VSU president Dr. Bill McKinney.

More than 40 years ago, Duncan began working for VSU. At the age of 16 he left his home in Thomas County to come to Valdosta and he started working as a dishwasher at VSU in 1970. He spent much of his time watching the other chefs because cooking was something he dreamed of doing. His mother, according to sister Doretha Duncan, always told him that if he were to ever get a job, to get a job cooking so that he wouldn’t ever go hungry.

After six months, Duncan got the opportunity to get in the kitchen when he was moved into prep work. The rest is now history.

Duncan was many things — a chef, a father of eight, a brother, an uncle, a preacher in Adel, a die-hard Blazer, a friend and mentor — but to everyone he met, he was everything. In fact, during an interview with the Times last year, Duncan claimed that he never met a stranger. We know now that it was absolutely true.

“He could go anywhere and have a friend,” said Shanna Mikell who worked with Duncan for five years in VSU’s Catering Department.

Anyone who ever met Earnie walked away with a story. His smile, positivity and of course, his famed fried chicken impacted a countless number of individuals.

“Earnie was so loved on this campus and he loved them back,” said one of his closest friends and co-workers in the VSU Catering Department, Deborah Conrad. “His death will have a huge impact.”

Conrad retired as the catering director at VSU last year where she worked alongside Duncan for 19 years.

Duncan has served a number of VSU presidents and a multitude of famous campus guests including Bob Hope, Bill Cosby and Ronald Reagan. However, Duncan’s greatest pride came from serving students comfort food that made them think of home and interacting with the faculty and staff that were more like family than co-workers.

“He loved to go out into the dining room at our lunches/dinners and talk with all the guests,” said Conrad. “The catering students, catering staff, dining staff and really the entire campus was his family and he loved them.”

VSU catering supervisor and student of Sociology Dennis White has been working with Duncan for the past seven years.

“He was more than just a cook up there, he was a positive male role model and a father figure,” said White.

White recalled a time when Duncan gave him a ride to the Greyhound bus station.

“He didn’t just drop me off,” said Duncan. “He sat with me until the bus came.”

For White, Duncan was a parent away from home and for Duncan’s own children, he was quite simply the best dad in the world.

“He will truly, truly be missed,” said Duncan’s third oldest child Jannie Duncan. “I love my father unconditionally and he was a big part of our lives.”

Like many, Jannie remembers the smile he always had on his face.

“I know he’s smiling right now,” said Jannie.

Duncan’s youngest daughter Shanika Duncan will miss his laughter.

“He was a very funny man and he worked very hard,” said Shanika.

Duncan’s son Jarvis Duncan was impacted greatly by his father.

“He made me who I am today,” said Jarvis.

While there are many things he will miss, most of all, he will miss just talking to him.

“He always kept a smile on his face, good or bad, just kept smiling,” said Jarvis.

Duncan’s next oldest son, Earnest Duncan, Jr. learned a lot from his father.

“He always loved,” said Earnest, Jr. “One thing he taught me was to spread love.”

For Duncan’s oldest daughter, Pamela Harris, her father was the best man she has ever known.

“He was just wonderful, the best dad,” said Harris. “We never had to want for anything.”

Duncan has left a void in the lives of everyone he has known.

“For me, as is the case with most everyone I suspect, Chef Earnie and VSU are interchangeable,” said VSU first lady Dacia Charlesworth.

Charlesworth will never forget the second time she met with Earnie while McKinney was going through the interview process to become president.

“We were standing on the VSU seal in the West Hall Rotunda early in the morning and he asked me if I wanted anything to eat,” said Charlesworth.

Charlesworth told him that she had already eaten breakfast, but really wanted to try his legendary fried chicken.

“He responded by saying: Anything for my future first lady,” said Charlesworth. “In that moment, in those six simple words, I knew that VSU was exactly where Bill and I needed to be.”

According to McKinney, as he walked through campus Thursday, something was missing.

“Students, faculty, and staff all feel a sense of loss,” said McKinney.

The loss was especially felt where Duncan most felt at home, the kitchen.

“Because of his caring nature and abilities in the kitchen churning up mouthwatering culinary delights, he has become a household name to people far and near,” said the resident district manager for food service operations at VSU. “He was a model employee, gentleman and a great asset to the VSU community.”

Despite such a loss, through numerous emails and phone calls, the Times came to notice that through the tears, people seemed to continue to pass on Duncan’s contagious laugh that was probably even more famous than his chicken.

Employee in the office of Human Resources at VSU Regina Lee spent most of her 14 years on campus laughing and cutting up with Duncan. One of her funniest memories of Duncan include a time she and a friend went to lunch with him around the time of Sept. 11. Duncan noticed a man walk in with a duffle bag.

“All of a sudden he just left out the restaurant,” said Lee.

Lee went out after him.

“He just said: Well, somebody got to live to tell the story,” said Lee as she laughed.

Duncan was certain the restaurant was about to be blown up.

“He just left us in there to be blown up,” said Lee.

She told that story a few times on Thursday because she has to keep laughing to keep herself from crying, a notion that Duncan would certainly be in favor of.

“My nickname for Earnie was Duncan Donuts,” said the retail director of Dining Services at VSU Patricia Adams. “The smile that he put on my face when he first saw me on campus and said: What’s up Ms. Pat, was just as big as the one on his face when I said: Hey Duncan Donuts!”

Adams has known and worked with Duncan since 1978, when she started at the university.

While Duncan may most be remembered for his insatiable hunger for life, his smile and his food, he is also remembered as a great man of God.

“Mr. E challenged me as a Christian, as a man of God,” said Lucas Hicks from VSU catering who worked with Duncan for two years. “He was a very wise man.”

Hicks would seek out Duncan for advice in his personal life.

“He would pray for me and he gave me a lot of Godly wisdom,” said Hicks.

Resident dining director at VSU Sylvia Wade, who worked with Duncan for 19 years, recalled a difficult time when a contract was lost and members of the VSU team were being let go.

“He bought Bibles for all the team members that would be leaving Valdosta State,” said Wade.

Duncan took the Bibles around to the president and vice president and other important people to sign.

“It really meant a lot to them,” said Wade.

Duncan, without trying, could just touch people. It was one of his many gifts.

“He’s helped me in so many ways he just doesn’t even know,” said VSU catering employee Lora Ames.

Many will remember his charm.

“I will always remember his presence when he walks into a room,” said VSU banquet assistant Terell Andrews.

According to VSU banquet server Jocelynn Okezie, he always found a way to make your day.

“Whenever he came into work, he always had something nice to say,” said Okezie.

Duncan’s nephew, Charles Duncan, quite simply, said it the best.

“He was just an all around good man,” said Charles.

According to McKinney, Duncan made a positive impact on his life and the lives of all he met.

“He brought a positive attitude and a love of community and family in everything he did,” said McKinney. “It was a part of his very being . . . His legacy is a vital part of our history. I will miss him tremendously.”

Funeral arrangements and a memorial service will be announced at a later date.