As Black History Month is upon us, it occurred to me that an important African-American figure in the public relations profession would be worthy of recognition. As I had a small personal experience with this individual, I hope I might be permitted to offer that recognition.
Ofield Dukes was a public relations professional in the Washington, D.C. area for many decades. His own PR firm was a Washington institution. It performed essential work in support of the designation of a national holiday honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Other clients ranged from corporations to public figures and entertainers.
In the late 1970’s, as a very young PR professional, I began testing the waters of Washington, D.C. for a position in a public relations agency. I did some homework and rounded up the usual suspects – Burson-Marstellar; Hill & Knowlton; Ogilvy and others. One of those “others” was Ofield Dukes & Associates.
I, frankly, had no idea who Mr. Dukes was. I knew very little about his firm. Truth be told, I even had no clue it was a predominately African-American enterprise. I only knew it was a name on a list of Washington agencies in The Yellow Pages…. my primary source for information in those pre-internet days. On that basis, Ofield Dukes & Associates received my cover letter and resume with a request for an informational interview.
After a sufficiently polite period of waiting to allow my mailed letters to arrive and for, what I was certain would happen, the leadership of those firms to carefully review my qualifications, I began telephoning to schedule the interviews.
My first round of calls was to the major firms. Not a single one allowed me past the receptionist. I was met with an inquiry as to who I was and the purpose of my call. Upon learning I was seeking an employment interview, I was told if there was any interest in my background, I would be contacted. This became my “You can’t see The Wizard, no way no how” moment.
I was always a poor student and a slow learner, so I failed to get the message. I continued to try, this time by calling a few of the “others” on my list. Once again, I was met every time with receptionists willing to take my name and number and have someone call me if there was any interest. Every time except once.
When I called Ofield Dukes & Associates, a very courteous person answered, determined why I was calling, and put me through to Mr. Dukes. He answered the phone by saying “Hello, Peter. What can I do for you?”
I was so stunned, I initially was at a loss for words. Still, I managed to bleat out the purpose of my call and over the next 15 minutes or so, shared my story with Mr. Dukes, learned more than I could ever find out on my own about the Washington, D.C. PR market, and received what felt like genuine interest and encouragement. His own firm was not hiring at that moment, but Mr. Dukes spent time with me, praised my efforts and educated me. No one else at the larger, loftier agencies that I had called to that point even took my call.
I do not remember every detail of that conversation, but even now, decades later, I remember how Ofield Dukes made me feel. He made me feel that I had a chance and should keep trying. He never bothered to ask me my race or ethnicity, a harbinger of equal opportunity practices to come. He simply was courteous, warm and interested. He had no reason to be any different from all the others, but he was.
I did continue my search and ultimately was hired by Manning, Selvage & Lee in D.C. I wrote Mr. Dukes a thank you note, but never actually met him until many years later. When we met, I shook his hand and said, “Mr. Dukes, I am certain you do not remember, but when I was a young professional casting around for a job, you were very kind to me and offered me encouragement.” He answered, “Did you find a job?” And then he laughed as we were both panelists at a graduate school PR function and by then he knew I headed my own agency.
I regret that I did not have a closer personal relationship with Mr. Dukes. But I am truly honored to say I had the privilege to meet him. I also have tried, probably not always successfully, to emulate his example in my own dealings with aspiring young professionals trying to find their break.
In our era of political, ethnic, racial and other divisions, it is worth remembering that basic human kindness and courtesy transcends all barriers.
Thank you, Mr. Dukes, for demonstrating this simple truth. Rest in peace knowing surely all others you touched, as I do, remember you with fondness and respect this month and always.