John Bernard Duff, former first president of the University of Lowell, former commissioner of the Chicago Public Library and former president of Columbia College Chicago, died Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. He was 82.
Duff was born in South Orange, N.J. on July 1, 1931, to John Bernard Duff, Sr. and Mary Cunningham Duff. He is the oldest of four brothers, Thomas, Joseph and Peter Duff, all deceased.
He graduated from Our Lady of the Valley High School in 1949 and married Helen Dorothy Mezzanotti in Worcester, Mass. on Oct. 8, 1955.
The Duffs resided on Laurel Avenue in Livingston from 1965-76, at which time they were active in community civic organizations, local sports and recreation and St. Raphael’s Parish and School.
Defying the odds of being born into a poor, working class Irish family during the Great Depression, Duff pulled himself up the ladder of life through education, for which he became a staunch advocate for the rest of his life. An historian, Duff received a B.A. from Fordham University, a M.A. from Seton Hall University, and a PhD from Columbia University.
In 1968, Duff was defeated in his bid for a seat in the United States Congress for New Jersey’s 12 District against Republican incumbent Florence P. Dwyer.
In 1970, following a decade as a professor of history, and later, chairman of history department at Seton Hall University, he was appointed vice-president for Academic Affairs. It was around this period that Duff authored or co-authored several publications on topics dealing with both Irish Immigration and the American Civil War, including, “The Structure of American History,” “The Nat Turner Rebellion: The Historical Event Controversy,” “The Irish in the United States,” and “Slavery: Its Origins and Legacy.”
In 1973, Duff became the first lay Provost and Executive Vice-President in the history of Seton Hall. In 1976, he became the first President of the University of Lowell, in Lowell, Mass., which would later become the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. In 1978, Duff was elected as chairman of the new Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, a federal agency to help develop the Lowell National Historical Park.
Duff was elected as the first Chancellor of Higher Education, Massachusetts Board of Regents in 1981, and served there until 1986.
On Nov. 12, 1985, he became the first non-librarian to be appointed as the Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library system. While at that post, he supervised the construction of the Harold Washington Library, the world’s largest public library.
During his tenure from 1992 to 2000 as President of Columbia College Chicago, the fifth largest private institution of higher education in Illinois, and the largest and most comprehensive arts media and communications college in the country, Duff oversaw the acquisition of the college's first modern residence hall. He also led its first long-range planning effort to expand its local and national development initiatives. Duff also served as Vice-Chairman from 1994–1996 and as Chairman from 1996-1998 of the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities. Also during his time, the institution changed its name from Columbia College to Columbia College Chicago, effective October 1997.
But besides his many outstanding accomplishments, John B. Duff might be remembered even more so for his generosity of spirit to everyone he encountered, no matter what their background.
“For the record, while in the next few days the professional accomplishments of JBD will be highlighted, he was so much more than that,” Mary Claire Mathews, a colleague from Columbia College Chicago, said of him.
“He impacted the lives of so many people. His spirit of generosity was unmatched; he was always reaching back to pull others up, attending to those in need and providing support and assistant whenever he could,” she said. “He connected with people, he cared and he made a difference. That's what made him exceptional.”
With Helen Duff, to whom he was married for 33 years, Duff was father to six children including, Michael John Duff, Maureen Ellen Duff, Patricia Jean Duff Bernacki, John Andrew Duff, Robert Matthew Duff and Emily Anne Duff. He was grandfather to eight, including Claudia Duff Bernacki, Nicholas John Duff, Henry John Bernacki, Casey Oliver Duff, Madelaine Sarah Duff, Charlotte Anne Duff, Emma Carrie Duff and Kathryn Jane Duff.
Duff married Estelle Shanley in 1988, with whom he lived near Palm Desert, Calif. until he died of complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.
He was a trailblazer, a man of letters with a wry wit and a warm heart.
A memorial service is being planned for a future date by his children.