Jimmy Dukes, a visionary and innovator who served New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Leavell College as a faculty member and administrator for more than four decades, died December 4 at the age of 81.
Dukes was integral to the founding and establishment of Leavell College, the ground-breaking and highly successful NOBTS prison theological education system, and the NOBTS extension center system that made theological education accessible to pastors without resources for education.
“This is an incredibly sad time at NOBTS and Leavell College as we remember the legacy and contribution of Dr. Jimmy Dukes,” said Jamie Dew, president.
“Dr. Dukes gave over 40 years of his life and ministry to this school,” Dew continued. “He served with great integrity, humility, and servanthood devotion. He was absolutely beloved by everyone on this campus, and will be missed terribly. While we grieve our loss, we rejoice with him that he is now in the presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Elected to the faculty in 1985, Dukes taught New Testament and Greek, but kept the local church and the small church pastor always at heart. Dukes led the way for the establishment of new delivery systems that included compressed interactive video and internet classes, as well as in-classroom distance learning through NOBTS extension centers that brought theological education to pastors already serving on the field.
Dukes’ many leadership roles during his tenure included time as dean of Leavell College (then the School of Christian Training), dean of the extension center system, dean of the NOBTS North Georgia campus, and director of accreditation and assessment. He retired in 2012 as senior professor of New Testament and Greek but continued to teach and to provide guidance in accreditation.
“Dr. Dukes was an influential leader for NOBTS and Leavell College,” said Norris Grubbs, provost. “During his many years at NOBTS, he served in several settings. In each role, he served faithfully and with excellence.”
Well known in the accrediting agency community, Dukes was respected for his expertise and his capacity to help others navigate the detail-oriented accrediting process. At NOBTS, his guidance was integral in establishing Leavell College and the prison theological education system, as well as in leading NOBTS through numerous accrediting cycles.
At the national level, Dukes served on the Commission on Accrediting at the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), one of the seminary’s accrediting agencies, and served at one time as chairman of the Commission on Accrediting.
Early in his tenure at NOBTS, Dukes served as pastor of New Orleans’ Elysian Fields Baptist Church, a church at that time located near the seminary and attended by many faculty and students. Throughout his ministry, Duke devoted his ministry as pastor or interim pastor to churches across Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia.
“Dr. Dukes was without question a pioneer,” said Thomas Strong, vice president of spiritual formation and student life, who followed Dukes as the second dean of Leavell College.
“His concern was always that every person have the opportunity to train for the ministry to which they were called -- it did not matter their age, their location, or their past. I stand in a long line of a number of men and women who have been personally impacted through his ministry and friendship,” Strong said.
Chuck Kelley, president emeritus, described Dukes as a “gift” to the seminary. In commending Dukes, Kelley noted the seminary’s location in a non-traditional, non-Southern Baptist setting and context.
“Jimmy Dukes was the most visionary educator that I have ever known,” Kelley said. “We had a missionary setting that required innovation and God gave us Jimmy Dukes. I think God matched him up with our school in some very special ways.”
Kelley said Dukes’ innovative ideas were driven by his concern for students and making theological education available to them.
“He didn’t think in terms of a teacher first, he thought first in terms of the students,” Kelley said. “He thought through the eyes and the circumstances of students.”
Kelley recounted that Warden Burl Cain approached the seminary—around 1995—about establishing an educational program inside the walls of “Angola,” the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. The idea at the time was “unheard of,” but Dukes found a way, Kelley said.
“Jimmy Dukes was the driving force that figured out how to do seminary training in maximum security prisons,” Kelley said. “I don’t think that could have happened with anybody else but Jimmy.”
Steve Lemke, provost emeritus, pointed to how Dukes advocated for online learning at a time when the internet was young and educational delivery was limited to seats in a classroom.
“He was very much in [the accrediting] world seen as an innovator in theological education,” Lemke said. “He saw these things before anybody else saw them.”
As a board member also of the Commission on Accrediting at ATS, Lemke said he seldom went on accreditation visits to other institutions or to board meetings without someone asking about Dukes and expressing their affection for him. Dukes was one of just two Southern Baptists to serve as chairman of the ATS Commission on Accrediting, Lemke added.
Lemke underscored that Dukes’ passion always was focused on providing good leadership for churches, particularly in underserved places.
“Why did he care so much about Leavell College? Because he knew a lot of people were serving in churches who didn’t have even an undergraduate theological degree,” Lemke said. “Why did he care about extension centers? Because it could provide that training for people who were already in ministry positions. Why did he care about the prison systems? Because he was serving another underserved or unserved population.”
A FRIEND TO ALL
As word of Dukes’ passing spread, social media filled with stories of Dukes’ friendship and kindness. Some spoke of his encouragement academically, others as their pastor, or as a caring friend who went out of his way to mow his neighbor’s yard. Many praised Dukes and his wife Retia, who preceded him in death, for their kindness and graciousness.
“He always had the ability to see the needs of students and envision ways the seminary might meet them,” Grubbs said. “For me, he was a mentor and friend.”
Lemke noted that beyond the seminary family and the SBC, Dukes is known well and that members of the seminary’s accrediting agencies were “very fond of him and very appreciative.”
Strong expressed his gratitude for Dukes’ friendship and noted the impact his life has made.“Jimmy gave me my first opportunity to teach as an adjunct and then invited me to join the faculty. He mentored me both as a faculty member and as an administrator.” Strong said. “I stand in the line of a number of men and women who have been personally impacted through his ministry and friendship."