Robert E. “Bob” Duncan, a longtime Fresno businessman and prominent benefactor of Fresno State and its athletic programs, died Wednesday in Fresno. He was 94.
His nephew, former Fresno City Council Member Jerry Duncan, announced his uncle’s death on his Facebook page Wednesday.
“If you knew him, you know he was a remarkable man who gave so much back to Fresno,” Jerry Duncan wrote. “He had a passion for Fresno State that few, if any, could match. He was a true pillar of our community.”
Mr. Duncan, a former president of Duncan Enterprises – a Fresno-based manufacturer of products and supplies for the ceramics and craft industries – served in the U.S. Army in World War II, according to his biography on the company’s website. Mr. Duncan served several years in the Army Medical Administration and had attained the rank of lieutenant by the time the war ended.
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Even before the war, Mr. Duncan helped with the ceramics business that his mother, Erma Duncan, started in the family’s garage. After the war, he joined what was then Duncan Ceramics (now iLoveToCreate) full-time, becoming president when the company incorporated in 1955. Mr. Duncan served as the company’s president until 1983, when he moved up to chairman of the board and his son Larry Duncan took over as president. He was among the founders of the National Ceramic Manufacturers Association and was the organization’s first president from 1963 to 1965.
“My uncle was somebody that I looked up to my entire life,” Jerry Duncan said. “The things that he had done, as much of himself as he gave, he was an inspiration to me.”
Fresno State President Joseph Castro issued a statement late Wednesday describing Mr. Duncan as “a devoted friend, fundraiser and donor to Fresno State who will be deeply missed.”
“His connections to the university were many and deep, and his significant impact on Fresno State academics and athletics is clearly visible throughout our campus,” Castro added. “We extend our sympathies to his wife, Linda, and family.”
Mr. Duncan was recognized for his contributions to Fresno in 1985 when the Fresno Chamber of Commerce presented him with the Leon S. Peters Award, the community’s highest honor for service. He was the second recipient of the annual prize.
His earnest support of Fresno State athletics included a $757,000 contribution from Duncan Enterprises in 1978 to the campaign to build Bulldog Stadium – the single largest donation to the stadium, according to the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame – and leading the effort to raise funds to build the Robert E. Duncan Athletic Building, which houses the university’s football and soccer offices, computer labs and team meeting room.
Mr. Duncan was also one of the driving forces in the development of the Save Mart Center arena at Fresno State. He earned the nickname “Mr. Bulldog” in 1981, was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by the university in 1996, and was inducted into the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame as the winner of the Harold Zinkin Award in 2013.
I thought that there was no reason why we couldn’t build athletic teams at Fresno State that would be able to compete nationwide, and that there would be no better way to spread the word about Fresno than through Fresno State athletics.
Robert E. “Bob” Duncan, former president and chairman of Duncan Enterprises and prominent Fresno State athletic benefactor
He lost the sight in his left eye in a childhood accident that limited his own ability to participate in sports in school. In an interview as part of Fresno State’s effort to document the Peters Award winners, Mr. Duncan said his fervor for helping to raise Fresno State’s sports profile grew out of his business travels. “When I started traveling and establishing distributorships (for the ceramics business) … people said, well, you know, ‘Where the hell is Fresno?’
“I guess being born and raised here, you just start feeling that, darn it … there needs to be something done to increase the name of Fresno,” he said. “I saw Fresno State struggling as a small sports program … and I thought that there was no reason why we couldn’t build athletic teams at Fresno State that would be able to compete nationwide, and that there would be no better way to spread the word about Fresno than through Fresno State athletics.
“Those are our Bulldog teams that are out there competing and winning games against other named universities,” Mr. Duncan added. “I thought it was a pride factor that we needed most of all, and I think that over the years, that’s proven itself out very well.”
He served three terms as president of the Bulldog Foundation in the early 1970s and was the athletic booster organization’s top fundraiser from 1966 to 1981.
Mr. Duncan was, at various times, also a member of Fresno State’s Quarterback Club, Time Out Club, Dugout Club, Track Backers Club, Softball Club and Wrestling Club.
Two other longtime Fresno State boosters acknowledged Mr. Duncan’s acumen at raising funds for his beloved Bulldogs.
“Bob knew all the big (money) players on a first-name basis,” said Harry Gaykian, who followed Mr. Duncan as Bulldog Foundation president from 1975-76. “And they listened and got behind him. He was great at getting major donors.
“He was a pioneer. He put in the time and energy to raise money for Fresno State,” Gaykian added. “And he did it out of his pocketbook, too. If the university was short on something, he took care of it.”
Nick Dvorak, the 2001 Bulldog Foundation president, said Mr. Duncan was “the reason we have the Bulldog Foundation.”
“Bob had all the support. He had a vision for things like Bulldog Stadium,” Dvorak added. “And he got the people behind him to make it happen. He was the kind of guy who could influence people.”
Athletics wasn’t his only passion, however. A 1990 profile in The Bee described Mr. Duncan as one of the 10 most powerful people in Fresno. In the late 1980s, he spearheaded a drive to raise $2.3 million for Fresno State’s University Business Center. He also worked with such organizations as the Boys & Girls Club of Fresno, the Fresno Chamber of Commerce and the Fresno Regional Foundation. In 1991, the United Way of Fresno County recognized him with the George A. Osborn Spirit of Leadership Award.
Fresno Realtor Helen Smades, the first female winner of the Leon S. Peters Award, said she met Mr. Duncan more than 20 years ago when she joined the 12-person board of governors for the California State University, Fresno Foundation. “I saw him as a true leader, a gentle, kind man with fabulous thoughts and ideas,” she said. Mr. Duncan was “one of the most respected board members that we’ve had on that foundation board. And he left a big footprint.”
Smades said when she moved to Fresno in 1945 she took ceramic lessons from Mr. Duncan’s mother. “He really grew that business as well as gave his sons a lot of room to continue growing it,” she said.
Mr. Duncan’s nephew described him as one of Fresno’s greatest citizens. “He was from a generation that made Fresno what it is today – in a good way,” Jerry Duncan said Wednesday. “My uncle was certainly part of that, a group of civic leaders. They didn’t do it for the glory. They did it because they cared.”
Robert E. ‘Bob’ Duncan
- Born: June 18, 1921
- Died: Nov. 11, 2015
- Residence: Fresno
- Occupation: Retired businessman, longtime president and chairman of Duncan Enterprises
- Survivors: Wife Linda Duncan; children Larry Duncan and Debra Kratzer; four grandchildren and two step-grandchildren and their families; numerous in-laws, nieces and nephews. Preceded in death by a brother, Dick Duncan; a son, Gary Duncan; and stepson Robert Joseph.
- Services: Memorial service at 10 a.m. Monday (Nov. 16) at Northwest Church, 5415 N. West Ave., Fresno.