THE DUKE AND GARRY: A PILGRIM’S TALE – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Our Arizona vacation is a trip back in time to some of my favorite western movies and TV shows. The cactus covered fields and surrounding mountains evoke memories especially of John Wayne-John Ford classics.

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The locales around Phoenix are similar to areas in Utah where Wayne and Ford made some of their iconic films.

In the aftermath of my first Arizona post, there were requests for my oft-told story about meeting Duke Wayne. If you’ve heard it before, head for the nearest saloon, Pilgrim.

Forty-one winters ago, as I reckon, it was John Wayne versus the anti-Vietnam War crowd at Harvard and surrounding areas of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Duke was cheered and jeered as he sat atop an armored “half track” which moved slowly through the crowd as light snow fell. Some dissidents lobbed snow balls at Wayne as they shouted in derision. The Duke smiled and waved.

At one point, everything stopped as the legendary star hopped out to shake hands amid a flurry of snow balls. It was a bad situation for a reporter attempting an interview.

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I remember calling in a few favors. Somehow, Duke and his entourage slipped into an empty theater. Long moments — an eternity to me — followed  as I waited alone on stage. Suddenly, the stage lit up and I froze.

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“Hello, Garry!”, Duke Wayne boomed in a friendly voice as he ambled in that familiar gait across the stage and greeted me. My TV persona kicked in as I shook hands with my hero, beaming with a pseudo happy smile.

I was oblivious to the cameras and time. Later, I would learn that it was a pretty fair interview with me swapping stories with Wayne including some anecdotes about my stint in the Marine Corps. Apparently, that impressed the Duke. He laughed when I recalled how I’d upset several drill instructors during basic training with my irreverent behavior.

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The interview apparently ran long because a press agent finally had to pry Duke loose to resume his “march” to Harvard.

During a formal, group interview at Harvard, Wayne singled me out as “his pal and former Gyrene”. I remember basking in the glow of that moment as other reporters glared at me.

Later, as the gathering dispersed, Wayne approached me and said, “Good to see ya again, Gyrene”.

I offered what must’ve been a broad, idiotic smile and said, “Good to see YOU again, Duke”. I could see, over my shoulders, my crew smirking and laughing. Didn’t matter to me.

Back in the newsroom, I walked around repeatedly asking people if they knew who shook my hand that day. Finally, someone told me to throw some cold water in my face and get on with my job.

They didn’t get it. I had spent “private” time with the Duke. With Hondo, Sgt. Stryker, Ethan Edwards, Capt. Nathan Brittles, and Rooster Cogburn … among others. Damn, I had swapped stories with the man who really shot Liberty Valance.

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Sadly, there were no personal pictures from that memorable day. No autograph. I’d always felt uneasy about asking celebrities for these artifacts. Ironically, this gesture apparently opened the door for more candid conversations and some unforgettable social afternoons and evenings with Hollywood legends, Royalty, Presidents, sports heroes, wise guys, godfathers and even Mother Theresa who singled me out from a crowd, chastising me about news coverage. I never figured that one out.

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Topping all those memorable days and nights was my afternoon with the Duke. Back here in Arizona, where the Duke galloped through so many westerns, I think maybe … mebbe … I can top that encounter in the future.

That’ll be the day!

Author: Garry Armstrong

As a reporter for Channel 7 in Boston for 31 years, I was witness to most of the major events affecting the region. I met a lot of people ... politicians, actors, moguls, criminals and many regular folks caught up in extraordinary situations. Sometimes, I write about the people I've met and places I've been. Sometimes, I write about life, my family, my dogs and me. Or what might otherwise be called Life.

42 thoughts on “THE DUKE AND GARRY: A PILGRIM’S TALE – GARRY ARMSTRONG”

    1. Thanks, Bette! It is absolutely terrific spending time out here in Arizona and cowboy country. It’s also nice being away from New England right now. Sunny and high 60’s today. Back to reality this weekend.

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  1. This is a great story, Garry. I don’t know why you’d say my meeting with the Duke was more personal! You spent way more time with him and had two extra encounters! I don’t know how I missed this earlier. I’ve been looking for it every day. Guess that was one of those days when I didn’t get to look until later in the day and it was way buried in the Reader. I’m going to mention it in my John Wayne post if that’s okay with you.

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        1. Mike, early Happy Birthday and Anniversary wishes. As for age and winter, I wish we could send them packin’…no such luck. Here’s to good health, Pilgrim!

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  2. Ah-h-h-h! The moments. The memories. Lack of photos doesn’t take away a single spoken word. The voice. You can probably still hear the conversation roaming about in the corridors of your mind. Nothing like the Duke’s! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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    1. Thank you!! Yes, I can still hear the Duke’s booming voice as we met on that near empty stage. And, golly, if you were the kid who grew up on John Wayne movies, what could be better than that day. Unforgettable!!

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  3. Stunning photos. Most celebrities just want to be treated normally – I have met some of the royal family of England – David Linley was a true gentleman ( the Queen’s nephew). I also got to meet Phil Collins. No I didn’t ask for autographs or swoon. That would have spoilt it. But I will treasure my memories.

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    1. Raewyn, they can’t take those memories away from us. I’ve used the absence of photos as an excuse not to write “the book”. I guess it’s about time for me to put that anxiety aside and start writing before the memories fade.

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        1. Raewyn, you SHOULD write. There must be memories that you can share. You are not obligated to tell the very private things. I find that in sharing my celeb stories, a bit of me emerges.

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    1. Thanks, Leslie. I really appreciate the responses and encouragement to write “the book”. I remember the running line in Wayne’s, “The Train Robbers”. It’s “something to do”.

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  4. I once met John Wayne in the grocery store. He was standing in front of me in the checkout line. I didn’t realize who he was until he began speaking to the cashier. That voice was unmistakable.

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  5. On the heels of the previous post, I am now trying to imagine The Duke uttering the phrase “horse residue” during one of those stories. I’ll bet not many people have both chatted up John Wayne, been told off by Mother Teresa, AND discussed hearing aids with Eddie Albert! I love your celebrity encounter stories!

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    1. Squirrel, I don’t think the Duke would’ve said “horse residue”. I didn’t want to say “poop” or use the other, more familiar word.
      That Mother Teresa tale still is a puzzler. Why did she pick on me?

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  6. I haven’t met many celebrities. I don’t believe I would do a conventional interview if I did. I’m certain they can tell right away whether they want to be bothered – or not. I think it’s just better to be yourself and have a good time. Unlike you though, finding common ground with John Wayne would not likely be an easy feat for me.

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    1. I think just being myself got me most of the celeb interviews and social times. I was never pushy, gushy or nasty. I was conversational and found points of common interest. Frequently, these celebs had seen ME on the tube so that was an ice breaker.
      As I’ve said before, my knowledge of seedy bars helped many times. It’s been a great ride for me.
      Hey, even animals like me. That’s another story.

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    1. Thanks, Tildy. I’ve told it many, many times because it was my favorite encounter. It’s funny because I was a regional celeb but never lost my own subdued awe of meeting a legend. I think I was a kid in adult clothing.

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