When you shared a meal and glass of wine with Monsignor Edward Duncan, the conversation was never dull.
A "delightful raconteur" who possessed an "Irish sense of humor," Duncan was well-informed on all fronts and rarely without opinions.
"If you were in a social situation ... it was hard to get ahead of him," said Monsignor Albert Hallin, who as a young priest remembered being in awe of Monsignor Duncan, longtime director of St. John's Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois and chaplain for University of Illinois sports teams.
"He could be comfortable with students, with peers and be comfortable with us, his brother priests. Was he a giant? Yes. Was he a big thinker? Indeed," Hallin said.
Monsignor Duncan, a fixture at Newman and along the sidelines at Memorial Stadium for five decades, died Tuesday in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. He was 96.
He moved in high-powered circles, mentoring future business leaders and star athletes and working with top church officials from Peoria to Rome.
Born in 1915 to a family of "substantial means," as he once put it, Monsignor Duncan had a sharp business acumen. His father, Walter Duncan, vice president of a LaSalle bank founded by his grandfather, directed the family cement company and worked in the insurance business. Walter Duncan later went into the oil business, with holdings in 17 states. The family owned the Purgatory ski resort in Colorado and two wineries in California.
When Monsignor Duncan was assigned to the Newman Center in October 1943, it was near bankruptcy, and its facilities were in disrepair. Duncan built it into the largest of the 600 Catholic campus ministries in the country, the only one with on-site housing for students.
He oversaw several renovations of St. John's Chapel, expanded the men's residence hall and founded a separate dormitory for women. Duncan also introduced religious-education programs accredited by the university.
The Newman Center would have disappeared decades ago without Duncan's leadership, said the Rev. Gregory Ketcham, current director at St. John's and chaplain to UI athletic teams.
As head chaplain to UI football and basketball teams, Monsignor Duncan rarely missed a UI football game, home or away. He worked with 10 head football coaches and eight head basketball coaches.
"He touched a lot of lives on this campus. He mentored guys like Dick Butkus and Tony Eason and many of the great names that went through this institution," said J. Steven Greene, director of development for athletics.
After his retirement, Duncan continued to travel occasionally with Fighting Illini teams to NCAA tournaments and bowl games.
Mike Hatfield, director of development at the Newman Center, formerly worked for UI athletics and spent many Friday night and Saturday morning meals, as well as pre-game and halftime meetings, watching Monsignor Duncan interact with young athletes.
The speeches he gave were not along the lines of, "we've got to win this game," but more, "Do your best, do not give up, keep the faith," Hatfield said. It was advice the players already knew, "but he was able to remind folks of it at a difficult time."
Monsignor Duncan used his religious training to talk with students about issues — religious, sports-related or otherwise — and provide counseling and guidance at a time when they found themselves without parental supervision for the first time, Hatfield said.
"As much as he considered himself religious staff, he also considered himself an academic — he had great academic training and background. He enjoyed sharing and challenging and being challenged by some of the brightest young people from around the country," Hatfield said.
Monsignor Duncan instilled a strong work ethic in players and other students, said UI business graduate Mark Hogan, a former General Motors executive and now owner of a company that makes vehicles for people with disabilities. He interacted daily with Monsignor Duncan as a student, serving Mass at St. John's and working as a manager on the UI football team from 1969 to 1973.
"He was extremely focused and very direct. He wouldn't mince words. If he thought you were going off in the wrong direction or could have taken a different path, he would tell you," Hogan said.
During his senior year, Hogan attended a lunch honoring General Motors scholarship winners, and they were asked to bring along a favorite professor. Hogan invited Monsignor Duncan.
The host for the lunch was GM Vice Chairman Thomas Murphy (later chairman), a UI alumnus who knew Monsignor Duncan well.
The next thing Hogan knew, GM's vice president of human resources was flying to Champaign to recruit him. Hogan had already committed to work for Illinois Central Industries, but GM offered to pay for his graduate studies at Harvard. He quickly accepted.
Hogan remained in contact with Monsignor Duncan over the years and plans to attend his funeral Wednesday in LaSalle, which will be led by Bishop Daniel Jenky.
"He had a huge impact on my life." said Hogan, who is also chairman of Toyota's North American Advisory Committee. "He's a great man."
Monsignor Duncan's tenure was not without controversy. In 1989, a former Newman Hall worker filed a discrimination complaint against him, saying she was fired because he didn't want blacks working behind the counter where they could be seen by the public. Although Duncan denied the accusations in a 1992 News-Gazette story, he ultimately lost the case through a default judgment.
Hatfield said Duncan lived in the same apartment in Newman Hall for more than 50 years before he bought a house in Champaign after retiring. He later moved to California.
Duncan held national positions in the Catholic Church, serving as consultant to a number of educational organizations and winning awards for his service to campus ministry and education. He enjoyed multiple audiences with the pope and Vatican leaders.
In 1994, Duncan was honored at a 50th anniversary celebration attended by Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame; Cardinal Pio Laghi, the representative of Pope John Paul II; Butkus; Murphy; and past UI presidents and chancellors.
Former President Stanley Ikenberry awarded him the UI's presidential medallion, given to only 15 people in history.
Duncan attended Saint Bede Academy in Peru, Ill., and Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., then pursued philosophical and theological studies.
He was encouraged by then-Bishop Joseph Schlarman to attend the Canisianum Seminary of Innsbruck, Austria. When Nazis marched into Austria in 1938, the seminary was temporarily moved to Sion, Switzerland. Because of the war, he spent a portion of the next semester studying in Ireland but was quickly summoned home.
He enrolled at the Catholic University of America and received his licentiate, or graduate degree, in May 1941, and later a doctorate.
He was ordained through the Diocese of Peoria and celebrated his first Mass at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in LaSalle. He was then named assistant pastor at St. Malachy Church in Rantoul, also serving as auxiliary military chaplain at Chanute Air Force Base.
He donated to hundreds of organizations over the years, including St. John's, The I Fund, School of Music and Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
The monsignor was born Sept. 7, 1915, in LaSalle. He is survived by a brother, Raymond Duncan of Denver, and was preceded in death by his parents, J. Walter and Velma Marie Duncan, and two brothers, J. Walter and Vincent.
A memorial Mass at St. John's will be held at a later date. Memorial gifts may be made to St. John's Catholic Newman Center, 604 E Armory Ave., Champaign, IL 61820. Hurst Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.