Edgar Duncan was the first African-American graduate of Duquesne University's pharmacy school. He was the first African-American to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health. He achieved the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service before he turned 40.
But he was not one to brag about any of it.
"When I was at Duquesne, I didn't even know that he was the first black graduate -- I had no clue," said his son, David Duncan, of Squirrel Hill, who also earned his bachelor's degree there. "He was modest about his accomplishments."
Mr. Duncan of Squirrel Hill died Saturday of pancreatic cancer. He was 79.
The son of a schoolteacher and a tailor in Monessen, Mr. Duncan rose to the highest levels of the U.S. Public Health Service, serving five years as the first black assistant surgeon general and supervising major government programs.
After holding high-level positions with the Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance company and the city of Newark, N.J., he studied at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health. He also earned a Ph.D. from Pitt's School of Education.
As an associate dean at the Graduate School of Public Health, he made a name for himself through his finesse with thorny administrative issues, and in his unparalleled devotion to students -- particularly minority students.
He worked tirelessly, almost always in his office -- with his door open -- until after 9 at night. He would do anything for his students, up to and including giving them a place to live in his home.
"He was a wonderful, wonderful human being," said Edmund Ricci, director of the Institute for Evaluation Science at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health, who considers Mr. Duncan to be one of his mentors.
Mr. Duncan knew exactly how to best motivate students and faculty members, he said, providing support but also maintaining quality standards.
"He could use the proverbial carrot and stick as well as anyone I've ever seen," he said.
Despite working long hours, Mr. Duncan made time for his family. He stressed education in the home, said his son, David, and the message was readily absorbed.
Mr. Duncan's three sons have undergraduate and graduate degrees from institutions including Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Duquesne and the University of Maryland.
"My dad's philosophy was that all the evils of society can be overcome by education," David Duncan said.
The family was constantly running into students that Mr. Duncan had helped over the years, said his son, many of whom saw him as a father figure and life mentor.
"I wish I could do what my dad did," he said. "He lived his life for others."
In 2002 -- at age 70 -- Mr. Duncan took the highly unusual step of getting re-certified as a pharmacist. Until just a couple of years ago, when his cancer treatments made work too difficult -- he worked part time as a practicing pharmacist.
"He couldn't stop working, ever," said his son. "He never stopped talking about going back to work again."
In addition to spending time with his family, Mr. Duncan also enjoyed jazz music, socializing with his brothers from the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and waxing nostalgically about his favorite car, a 1963 Chevy Impala that he called "The Red Baron."
In addition to his son, Mr. Duncan is survived by his wife, Lauraine; his sons Eric of Washington, D.C., and Conrad of Ellicott City, Md.; sisters Dorinda of Greensboro, N.C., and Rose of Willingboro, N.J.; and two grandchildren.
The family will hold visitation from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at John A. Freyvogel Sons in Shadyside. The funeral is Friday in the Smithfield United Church of Christ at 11 a.m.
Memorial contributions can be made to either of Mr. Duncan's scholarship funds: The Edgar N. Duncan Endowed Scholarship at Duquesne or the Dr. Edgar and Lauraine Duncan Scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.
Anya Sostek: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1308. First Published December 20, 2011 5:00 AM