Indianapolis history is not just made up of buildings, historic homes, and age-old events. After all, it IS people who make history happen, so what better way to know Indianapolis history than to hear from life-long Indy residents? HI will be featuring some of Indianapolis’ oldest residents to unlock the personal memories and nearly forgotten stories of this great city.
Though an unassuming man, Luther Duke is familiar to anyone who works at St. Vincent Hospital on 86th Street. Why, do you ask? Well, Luther happens to be the longest-serving employee at the hospital. Come September, he will have worked there for 55 years. He even has a street on the hospital campus named after him!
Luther has been an Indianapolis resident for most of his life, though he still considers his hometown a small farm town in Tennessee. Luther moved near Military Park with his mother when he was 11 in 1950, and initially struggled to fit in, being a Southern country boy.
“I was right out of the country, so coming up here wearing a plaid shirt and needing a haircut, I just looked stone country,” he said. “It took me about a month just to find my way around.”
Luther and his mother lived on West Ohio Street near Military Park in “just an old rackety house,” according to Luther. It didn’t have storm doors, a furnace, or a stove, and it ran on kerosene.
“All I remember is it was so cold, compared to Tennessee,” said Luther. “The house we lived in was right close to the canal so the windows would freeze. I dang near froze to death.”
Luther jumped right into a classroom at School #5 off Washington and Blackford St., quite a switch from his Tennessee school–an all-black one-room schoolhouse.
“The black kids didn’t like me because I was a country boy, but the white kids were nice. I had to fight the school bully on the first day of school, so I made friends in a hurry.”
School No. 5 stood near where the Indiana State Museum stands today. Its facade was preserved and covers an entire wall of the Museum’s lobby.
Luther loved playing baseball in Military Park with his friends after school, and would hit up White Castle or Steak ‘n Shake to buy a steak burger and a vanilla shake. In the summers, he’d tag along with a neighborhood family to the State Fair, visiting and eating all the same things that the Fair still offers today.
“On Saturdays, we used to go to the movies all the time. We’d go to the Rodeo Theatre, which was 20 cents for kids. They showed Western movies mostly, like Hop Along Cassidy and The Cisco Kid and Pancho,” he said.
But Luther’s favorite memories of events and places differ from those of many old Indianapolis natives because of segregation laws.
“I knew about the amusement park at Riverside Park, and those drive-in restaurants, but by the time we were allowed to go there, they were tearing those places down,” he recalled.
Luther and his mother soon moved to a nicer neighborhood, residing at 2352 N. Illinois Street, which has since been torn down to make way for an apartment complex. But he loved that neighborhood, as it had better homes, a pleasant park, and a drugstore across the street.
Luther went to high school at Crispus Attucks, an all-black school until white-enrollment began in 1967. Although being a Crispus Attucks student was the envy of many black students in the city, Luther was never fond of high school because there were too many adults in his classes. Back then, the government paid for men in the service to earn high school diplomas…which meant there were grown men in Luther’s classes…which meant Luther couldn’t goof off the way any high school boy would like to. Luther used to attend Crispus Attucks basketball games and, if he could get transportation, he would go to high school dances at the Walker Theatre.
Luther always worked part-time jobs after school, like working as a bus boy at Fendrick’s Famous Foods, formerly at Union Station before it was demolished But soon, Luther fell into peer pressure and started hanging with the wrong crowd.
“All my neighbor friends looked like they were having so much fun on the streets, and I was the neighborhood square, so I finally gave in and started hanging out on the streets,” he said. “By the time I turned 18, I found out most of those people were losers, but I had dug myself too deep by that point.”
His wise mother, who worked as a diet aid at St. Vincent Hospital on Fall Creek Boulevard, decided Luther needed to grow up a little, so she signed him up for a job, unbeknownst to him.
“One day, I had been fooling around with my friends all morning,” said Luther, “my mother came home on her lunch hour and said, ‘Son, I got you a job,’ so I walked back to work with her, filled out an application, and started working.”
That was 1958. And he’s stayed ever since, even through the hospital’s move from Fall Creek Boulevard to 86th Street and Ditch Road in the late 70s. Luther started out working in the dietary department, but switched to housekeeping, a decision he still regrets.
“I never should’ve changed jobs, because at least in the kitchen, I got free food!”
The biggest thing Luther wishes to change in Indianapolis is the crime rate because he believes there’s too much violence now, and people are less trustworthy now.
“We need to get these boys off the streets and put them into the service or something” he said. “It’s just ridiculous nowadays.”
Luther is known for his ability to put patients at ease with his warmth and ever-present smile. In the above cited article, he stated, “Most patients are really nervous, even scared, when they come here…Parents with small children will sometimes say to me, ‘He’s never going to go with you.’ Then I just hold my arms out and the child will jump right into them. That’s happened quite a few times.”
Luther wishes he had gone to trade school years ago, but his role at St. Vincent has been an important one. He’s a steady presence and an example of a diligent worker, always carrying a smile that has captured the hearts of many.