Robert Elder Duff simply planned to spend the weekend at Thiel College in Greenville when he went there to visit a friend in 1946. At the time, Mr. Duff had just finished three years of service in the Army and was planning on finishing his education where he had originally intended, at the University of Pittsburgh.
He was playing on Thiel’s basketball court when he caught the attention of the school’s head coach, who asked him to stay and play a season for the team. Mr. Duff went home that Sunday to pack, turning his weekend stay into a lifelong relationship with the school.
Mr. Duff, or “Mike,” as he had been called since childhood, died surrounded by family on June 28 after battling prostate cancer in his later years. He was 87 and lived at Masonic Village in Sewickley.
“I would say what really motivated him was just love for family and interest in athletics,” his daughter, Amy Zeffiro said. “His six grandchildren, the sun rose and set on them.”
Ironically, it was being drafted into the army that led Mr. Duff both to Thiel and to his wife, Mary. After graduating from Brentwood High School in 1943, Mrs. Zeffiro said, Mr. Duff had planned to play football on scholarship at Pitt until his call to service interfered.
Instead, he had to wait three years to begin his college education at Thiel. There he met a fellow freshman named Mary Elizabeth Dewar, with whom he would fall in love and spend the rest of his life. Together they had two children: Amy, who lives in Sewickley, and Robert Jr., who lives in Peach Tree City, Ga.
Mr. Duff had a distinguished athletic career at Thiel, where he was named to the Pennsylvania All-State Basketball team and held the national record for free throw shooting percentage. His achievements earned him an induction into the college’s athletic Hall of Fame in 1987.
His passion for athletics carried on beyond college. He began refereeing football games in the early 1950’s, starting with high schools and then moving up to small local colleges such as Thiel and Westminster. He eventually became a Division I football official, a role he served for 30 years until his retirement when he was 57. He officiated games at Pitt, Penn State, Notre Dame and other prominent schools.
“And my mother would go with him to all of the game,” Mrs. Zeffiro said. “It became sort of a family affair.”
Sports were indeed a family affair for Mr. Duff. As he became an avid golfer in his older years, so did Robert Jr., who went on to spend time on the golf team at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Amy followed in her father’s footsteps and attended Thiel, where she would escort her father for Hall of Fame luncheons most years after his induction.
Mr. Duff, meanwhile, kept himself occupied with athletics even as he got older. He spent nine years at Masonic Village after his wife died in 2005, and became the champion of the village’s Friday night ping pong. Much of his entertainment in his later years, Mrs. Zeffiro says, came from watching local teams like the Steelers, Pirates and Pitt football.
Mr. Duff applied the same passion he had towards athletics to his work in the disability insurance business at Provident Agency in Pittsburgh. He took up working in insurance in the early 1950’s and continued in the business until he retired at 65. He spent 25 years working with a friend named Malachy Whalen, who credits Mr. Duff with helping him become involved with Provident.
Mr. Whalen said it was the same intangibles that led Mr. Duff to his national foul shooting record that brought him to his career success.
“Mike was just a tremendous influence in my business life, as well as we were personal friends,” Mr. Whalen said. “He was a true expert in disability income insurance and he was considered the finest one in Western Pennsylvania.”
Mr. Duff will be remembered in a memorial celebration on Friday, Aug. 1, at 11 a.m. at Masonic Village in the Sewickley Assembly Room.
Jourdon LaBarber: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @jourdonlabarber.