Super Senior: Claire Duke

Published: May. 18, 2023 at 6:58 PM EDT
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LYNDONVILLE, Vt. (WCAX) - Claire Duke savors the view at her home in Barre Town.

“This is just beautiful,” she said. “I mean, how can you do anything but relax when you look at this?”

Relaxing is new to Duke. In her early days, she was on the go. The Barre native was born in the Depression and grew up on a farm with her parents and her brother, Leo. She was a good student, but when it was time to look at colleges, she received some sobering news. “It was a real disappointment,” she said. “My biggest thought is, you know, how much I wanted to go to school.”

For close to seven decades she has kept a secret. She wanted to become a teacher and was accepted to what was then Lyndon Teachers College. But the cost of tuition and room and board was too much money for her parents.

“It’s hard for young people probably to realize there was a day when you didn’t have the money, you couldn’t pay for it, you didn’t do it,” Duke said. “I felt less around others that did go to college, classmates, and I had the feeling I had to do better.”

Duke did prove herself. With a passion for politics, she ran a U.S. Senate campaign, met presidents, helped establish the League of Woman Voters chapter in Central Vermont, and became a successful real estate agent -- all while raising six kids with her husband, David. “I know how to work, I know how to work hard -- that’s a big advantage,” she said.

Duke wrote her life story down on a website called Storyworth and turned it into a book for her family. “At the time, my parents explained that the cost of sending Leo to Syracuse University would make another college tuition cost prohibitive,” she said, reading from her memoir. “Was I disappointed? I can muster up tears.”

Duke’s kids were surprised by her revelation and lobbied Lyndon, the school where Claire so much wanted to study. The administration agreed to award her with an honorable doctoral degree in letters. Last Sunday -- Mothers Day -- Dukes’s children and brother, Leo Laferriere, made it to graduation at Northern Vermont University-Lyndon. Unfortunately, the 87-year-old became ill and couldn’t make it to her ceremony.

“She made her own story,” said Leo, the older sibling who was able to attend college all those years back.

Reporter Joe Carroll: When you heard that she had that desire, what was your reaction?

Leo Laferriere: Surprised and disappointment for her.

With her kids on stage in her absence, Vermont State University interim president Mike Smith presided over the handing out of degrees. “Claire is watching in on livestream, so let’s give her a big round of applause,” Smith told those assembled.

“This is for you Claire -- at home -- that you, Claire Diane Laferriere Duke, have proven that education can come in many different forms, all of which are equally valuable,” Duke’s close friend, Bonnie Stacy, told those assembled.

Back at home with her husband, Duke soaked it all in. “I wish my parents could see this,” she said. The honor is well deserved, but for Duke, the family still takes center stage.

Reporter Joe Carroll: What is your greatest accomplishment?

Claire Duke: Oh, my six children.