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If you are from Johnston County, you probably knew Billy Duke, and if you knew Billy, you already miss his presence. Tishomingo will not be the same without his humor, kind words, and quiet generosity.
Billy Frances Duke, loving husband, father, brother, uncle, and friend, died on October 18, 2022. Billy was born on August 15, 1950 in Tishomingo to Margaret and Bill Duke. Billy grew up surrounded by sisters he loved. He and his sisters attended Tishomingo Public Schools, and Billy was a proud graduate of the THS class of 1968. His love of the Tishomingo Indians continued until his death. Just last week, he sat in the bleachers at the football game and made people smile, pretending to reach for their nachos or telling them they needed to stop getting so old. He knew and loved the people of his community.
He married his beautiful wife, Rona Camp Duke, on November 2, 1974 in Atoka. He loved to tell people that she didn’t even like him at first, but he was “hot stuff back in the day,” so she figured that out. Her story is a little different, but both agreed that they have been deeply in love since 1973. Their marriage has served as a model for many of the young people they have mentored over the years. They joked with each other, supported each other during hard times, and found ways to show their children what love looks like. They provided a place for their nieces and nephews to live during college and allowed their home to be a place of respite for their bonus daughter, nieces and nephews, and many who just needed the comfort of a loving family.
Billy was incredibly proud of his son, Jason Duke, and his daughter, Kerri Duke. He said often that Jason had more courage and a bigger heart than anyone he knew. And he knew that Kerri has the same spunk he had and was always amused by her spirit. He spoke of her adoringly and never failed to tell people what a good teacher she is. He loved his children unconditionally and without reservation. He was so proud to be their dad and enjoyed sharing stories about them with everyone he knew.
Billy was a member of the Army National Guard. He downplayed that experience, often saying that he didn’t deserve the honor of a veteran. He had sincere respect for all service members and veterans, and while he didn’t seek accolades, those who love him are proud of his service.
In his spare time, Billy loved working on cars, collecting things he thought might be useful at some point, driving around, and visiting with people he cared about. He remembered details about the lives of everyone he called a friend–and everyone who knew him became his friend. He cared about people and showed it. He especially loved spending time outside in nature. He visited the Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge at least once a day and he kept a watchful eye on people who walk and run on Refuge Road, often offering to race or heckling them about being slow. His sense of humor made the world brighter.
In addition to being called Dad, Billy prized the title of Uncle Billy. He loved every one of his nieces and nephews, and he loved their children and grandchildren. He supported them and cheered for them. He spent time with them whenever possible and showed them he cared. He was exceptionally proud to be their uncle. They always knew they had him in their corner. He did the same for his bonus granddaughters. He attended their dance recitals, plays, and concerts, and he encouraged them in every endeavor.
Billy held more than one job during his lifetime, but the one he enjoyed most was working for Tishomingo Schools, where he served selflessly for 30 years. He worked at all three campuses, enjoying the challenges at every level. He has pulled thousands of teeth, wiped hundreds of noses, comforted hundreds of kids with pats on the back and fist bumps, and changed the lives of more people than we can count. Students, parents, and teachers all knew they could count on him for help of any kind. Billy frequently purchased things for students in need and provided the supplies teachers needed to help their students. He did it discreetly, without wanting anything in return and never seeking thanks. Billy has even been known to dress up as a chauffeur, hat and all, to drive students to prom. No task was too big or small for Billy. He never lost sight of the goal of education: making students’ lives better. Students’ lives truly were better because of Mr. Duke, and he never tired of being called Mr. Duke. Whether he was in Dollar General or the halls of the school, he was excited to be greeted by the kids he loved, and he loved them all.
Billy was preceded in death by his parents, Margaret and Bill Duke; a brother, Vernon; a sister, Brenda; and a nephew, Derek Perrin.
He is survived by his wife, Rona; his son, Jason; his daughter, Kerri (Natalia); sisters, Virginia Sue Ehmen, Linda House (Tommy), Doris Montoya, Dana Hailes (Mike), Debra Johns (Eddie); numerous nieces and nephews, great-nieces and nephews, great-great-nieces and nephews; a bonus daughter, Katy Peercy (Michael) and two bonus grandchildren, Maggie Peercy (Amy), and Marianna Peercy.
A celebration of life will be held in the THS gym on Wednesday, October 26 at 3:30 pm. All who knew Billy are invited to attend. It will be a casual, informal event, as Billy would want it to be. A private graveside service for the family at Condon Grove Cemetery. Family night will be held at Hartwell Funeral Home on Tuesday, October 25th, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm.
Billy Duke made his corner of the world a better place, and he left a beautiful legacy through his service to the people of the community he loved. If you would like to honor Billy with a donation, you may donate to the Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge, or you can call Michelle Hill or Katy Peercy at Tishomingo Middle School to make donations to an account his family will use to support Special Education students and teachers in the Tishomingo Public School System.