Remembering Red Duke

Larger than life, Dr. Red Duke remembered as a top surgeon and a real Texas character

Dr. Red Duke remembered as a top surgeon and a real Texas character

11 7908 Sara Duke and Dr. James H. “Red” Duke Jr. at the UT Health Gala November 2014
Dr. Red Duke, with daughter Sara Duke, was honored at the UTHealth Constellation Gala last year that raised nearly $2 millon for scholarships and faculty endowments. Photo by © Kim Coffman
News_Social Book party_November 2011_Joanne King Herring_Dr. Red Duke
Joanne Herring and Dr. Red Duke at the Social Book party in 2011. Photo by Kim Coffman
Red Duke
Dr. James H. "Red" Duke. Courtesy of UTHealth
News_Be an Angel dinner_May 2011_Dot Cunningham_Dr. Red Duke
Dot Cunningham and Dr. Red Duke at the Be An Angel dinner in 2011. Photo by Fulton Davenport: PWL Studio
News_Dr. James “Red” Duke Jr._Dr. Giuseppe Colasurdo_graduation 2008
Dr. Red Duke and Dr. Giuseppe Colasurdo at the UTHealth graduation in 2008. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews
News_Men of Distinction May 2011_Dr. Duke_Tom Koch.jpg
Dr. Red Duke and KTRK anchor Tom Koch at the Men of Distinction dinner in 2011. Photo by Kim Coffman
11 7908 Sara Duke and Dr. James H. “Red” Duke Jr. at the UT Health Gala November 2014
News_Social Book party_November 2011_Joanne King Herring_Dr. Red Duke
Red Duke
News_Be an Angel dinner_May 2011_Dot Cunningham_Dr. Red Duke
News_Dr. James “Red” Duke Jr._Dr. Giuseppe Colasurdo_graduation 2008
News_Men of Distinction May 2011_Dr. Duke_Tom Koch.jpg

Sadly, they don't make 'em like Red Duke anymore.

With his trademark bushy mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, Texas twang and a no-nonsense, down-home personality, Dr. James H. "Red" Duke always left a strong and lasting impression, whether it was in the operating room, when he was a top surgeon, or on TV, where he explained complicated medical issues in understandable terms on Dr. Duke's Health Reports for more than 15 years.

 “Dr. Duke was one of our country’s great doctors." 

Duke passed away on Tuesday, his family announced in a statement. He was age 86.

Dr. Giuseppe N. Colasurdo, president of UTHealth and dean of UTHealth Medical School, remembered Duke as "a true pioneer – a talented and tireless surgeon, a dedicated and inspiring educator, and a friend and mentor to everyone he met. He never sought to be a leader, but became one naturally through his brilliance, compassion, patience and selflessness."

“Dr. Duke was one of our country’s great doctors," Dan Wolterman, president and CEO of Memorial Hermann Health System, said in a statement. "He was a friend, a colleague, and a role model and mentor to a generation of doctors who benefited immensely from his guidance. I, along with everyone at Memorial Hermann, will forever miss Dr. Duke."

Life Flight founder

In 1976, Duke was instrumental in developing Life Flight, the state’s first lifesaving air ambulance service, at what was then Hermann Hospital. He served at medical director for trauma and emergency services at Memorial Hermann for nearly four decades, overseeing the unit's rise to the nation's busiest Level 1 trauma center, until just before his death.

A surgical resident at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Duke was credited with saving the life of Texas Gov. John Connally, who was shot in a motorcade, along with President John F. Kennedy. Duke was the first surgeon to receive the president at the hospital before taking over the treatment of Connally.

 "I've been to a lot of goat ropin's and county fairs, but I ain't never been to one like this," Duke quipped when being honored at last year's UTHealth gala.

Born in Ennis in 1928 and raised in Hillsboro, Duke acquired his life-long nickname as a youngster due to his long red curly locks. After graduation from Texas A&M University, he served a two-year stint in the U.S. Army and earned a divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1955. He received his M.D. from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas in 1960. 

 In 1972 he joined the then-fledgling University of Texas Medical School in Houston as a professor of surgery and continued there throughout his career, even as his fame grew. He hosted the PBS series Bodywatch, which premiered 1986, and became a household name as the host of Dr. Red Duke Texas Health Reports, which was syndicated around the world. His popular signoff was "For your health!"

He also was the inspiration for a short-lived 1987 television series, Buck James, starring Dennis Weaver.

Game hunter and conservationist

Duke was a big-game hunter, who accomplished the coveted North American grand slam of wild sheep, but also was an avid conservationist devoted to the restoration of the species. He served as founder and president of the Texas Bighorn Society, president of the Boone and Crockett Club, the oldest conservation organization in the United States, and the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep.

He also was active on Houston's charity and social circuit. Last year he was honored at a gala that raised nearly $2 million for student scholarships and faculty endowments at UTHealth. "I've been to a lot of goat ropin's and county fairs, but I ain't never been to one like this," Duke quipped in his signature twang adding, "This is a very, very important initiative. These students need all the help they can get."

Duke is survived by sister Helen Patricia Hipps; children Hank, Rebecca, Sara and Hallie; mother of the children Betty C. Kent; son-in-law Charles King; grandchildren Sean, Jesse, Joshua, Maria, Waylon, James and Elizabeth; and great-grandchild Cierra Rose.

A private funeral service will take place at Geo. H. Lewis & Sons, and a public visitation is being planned. Interment will take place at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin with only family in attendance.

In lieu of customary remembrances, the family requests that memorial contributions be directed to the James H. “Red” Duke, Jr. MD Endowed Scholarship Fund, UTHealth Office of Development, P.O. Box 1321, Houston, TX 77251-1321 or to the Memorial Hermann Life Flight Fund.