Chautauquan Carol Duhme: A life well lived

JOSHUA BOUCHER | Staff Photographer
Carol Duhme sits at home in the St. Elmo, under a painting of her hometown, St. Louis, Missouri.

On Feb. 28, 2015, Chautauquan Carol Duhme received the Dean’s Medal for her service to the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. In the 1990s, she received an honorary doctorate from Eden Theological Seminary.

Though she has received many honors, these two offer tangible testament to Duhme’s faith and the convictions that have guided her actions and interests over her 98 years.

Her unreserved faith in God and her conviction learned during her years as a young teacher that “just a little bit of extra time when a person needs it can be so important” are the partner keystones of her spirit. Her faith is robust but does not rebuff different beliefs.

“I have been motivated by my faith in God,” Duhme said. “He sent Jesus Christ to show us a way to live. But, as a Christian, you have to recognize other beliefs.”

Her social philosophy — “I am interested in helping people help themselves,” she said — always recognized the dilemma that poverty and lack of education impose.

Duhme was born April 13, 1917, in St. Louis to Eugene Ross and Louise Roblee McCarthy.

“Both my mother and father were a lot of influence on my philosophy,” Duhme said. “I always admired them.”   

Her mother’s designation as one of the 10 women of achievement by the St. Louis Democrat was perhaps a harbinger of the budding women’s movement. Duhme followed in 1960, and was named the first woman trustee of the United Church of Christ.

“Out of courtesy to me they [the men] did not smoke their cigars,” she said.

Her education at John Burroughs School and Vassar College where she majored in euthenics, a science concerned with bettering the condition of human beings through the improvement of their environment, developed a mind accustomed to independent thinking. That independence would carry over to her board role — and she was a member of many, including Chautauqua Institution from 1971 to 1979.

“I did my homework and had the nerve to raise my hand and say something,” she said.

As an Eden Theological Seminary board member, “I stuck my neck out” and suggested what she considers “one of the most exciting things I was part of.”

Her intuition that ministers would benefit from sociology education at Washington University School of Social Work, and that social work students would benefit from theological education at Eden Seminary, became a dual degree in social work and divinity.

In 1970, her mother’s will established the Joseph H. and Florence A. Roblee Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting change by supporting organizations that address significant social issues, improve quality of life, and help individuals fulfill their potential. Duhme and her sister, Marjorie McCarthy Rolins, are the trustees.

Under their leadership, the Roblee Foundation has become a catalyst supporting programs like the dual degree program at Washington University and Eden Theological Seminary. In 2014, the foundation granted funds to 58 nonprofit organizations.

A conversation with Duhme would be a tonic if one only learned of her public life. But it is a conversation with the woman who lost her first husband in World War II, and later two young sons to cancer, who offers instinctive empathy and resilient optimism that is a balm that soothes the disquiet heart.

Duhme and Sheldon Ware were married June 12, 1941. He would perish over the South Pacific on a bombing raid to Borneo. They had one son, David, who is now a doctor.

On April 9, 1947, she married H. Richard Duhme, Jr. They had three children: Benton, Warren and Ann.

Dick Duhme was a sculptor, head of the Washington University Sculpture Department and Chautauqua teacher for many years. He designed the Chautauqua President’s Medal and sculpted the charming boy playing a pipe, which sits above the fountain in the Roblee Memorial Garden behind the Smith Memorial Library. It is a memorial to H. Joseph Roblee, Duhme’s grandfather and Duhme’s and Dick’s sons.

They enjoyed a long marriage, traveling around the world five times. Dick died in 2005.

Chautauqua has been a part of Duhme’s life since she visited her grandparents when she was 12.

“I took typing lessons, but because I only stayed two weeks, I never learned the top row,” she said. “I have to hunt and peck for the numbers.” (She does have an iPad.)

Duhme was in the Amphitheater when World War II ended.

After her second marriage, the family came annually to their lakefront home. Her mother told Duhme of her decision to set up the Roblee Foundation over breakfast in the Athenaeum Hotel.

The Roblee Foundation has supported Chautauqua, including funding the Louise Roblee McCarthy Memorial Lecture, the Eugene Ross McCarthy Religious Lectureship and the Abrahamic Program.

“I love Chautauqua,” Duhme said. “It has changed with the times, and it has to.”

Age does not appear to daunt Duhme, though she did speak with sadness of losing lifelong   friends, her doctor, accountant and lawyer. She keeps charge of her finances and  oversees the foundation’s.

When asked if she had any tips for investing, she smiled and responded vaguely: “the stock market is alright.”

Recently, she moved from her St. Louis home to senior living, but does not and will not play bridge, a popular pastime there.

“It takes up to much time and I have other things to do,” she said.

She drives, recently passing a required driver’s test and has no fear of flying alone.

“I know that someone will help me,” Duhme said. “Americans are wonderful people. You know, what’s important is your attitude. I love being involved. There are good things going on. I’m an optimist.”

When asked what she planned to do next, she smiled.

“I have ideas.”

The guiding principle of Duhme’s life might well be “It is better to light one single candle than to curse the darkness.”

Carol Duhme has lit a lot of candles.