Update: On June 5, 2020—less than two weeks after we shared Gerald Duke’s story—he passed away peacefully in his sleep. The following day, the below video honoring Duke’s life was screened at an Atlanta Motor Speedway race. (He competed at the first-ever Atlanta Motor Speedway event in 1960.)
As our elders age, we are at risk of losing our history. If we don’t ask loved ones about their past, those stories die with them—that knowledge is forever gone. Terri Amelio, a finance officer at the Robinson College of Business, has been diligent about recording her 92-year-old father Gerald Duke’s narrative. Though Duke has Alzheimer’s disease and possesses cloudy memories of his service in World War II, Amelio has preserved his story.
“About 10 years ago, when my father was still of sound mind, my mother and I wrote everything down and stored it in a filing cabinet,” Amelio said.
Duke looked for an opportunity to escape his abusive, alcoholic father who beat him with jumper cables.
“My grandfather was a lazy drunk,” Amelio said. “They kept losing their home and at one point slept in the back of a pool hall.”
Duke lied about his age in order to join the Army’s 11th Airborne Division. At the time, he was 16. He originally worked as a paratrooper at the staff sergeant level. One landing injured his back so badly that he ended up temporarily paralyzed. After a three-day hospitalization as well as physical therapy, Duke’s paralysis subsided. But because of ongoing back issues, he transitioned from jumping out of airplanes to fixing jeeps. Bolstered by a background in auto mechanics, he eventually headed the Army’s motor pool. Nineteen men reported to him.
In December 1947, the Army honorably discharged Duke based on his permanent disability. Six months later, a military buddy opened a car dealership in LaGrange, Georgia, and offered Duke the chance to run the store. Duke turned down the opportunity and instead moved to Atlanta, where he pursued a stint in racing cars. He competed in the first-ever Atlanta Motor Speedway event and participated in NASCAR for three years. He ultimately opened Metro Transmission, an auto repair shop in College Park, Georgia, retiring at age 81.
Many of Amelio’s family members (her father, grandfather, great grandfather, and brother) served in the military. In her opinion, people born during those eras are infinitely tougher than subsequent generations.
“People are so soft these days,” she said. “They’d fall over if someone said ‘boo.’”
Amelio’s own upbringing was colored by her father’s past, but she doesn’t hold that against him.
“Growing up, there were some violent outbursts in our house. You can’t help but repeat the cycle,” she said. “With the Alzheimer’s, sometimes my father returns to his old demeanor.”
Like anyone, Duke’s life hit high and low points. Amelio has done a remarkable job of chronicling every part of it: the good and the bad.