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Local News

An Extraordinary Life: Joliet woman turned tragedies into opportunities

Joliet woman turned tragedies into opportunities

JOLIET – Perhaps Margaret Duncan’s ability to weather life’s storm had its roots in a picnic she attended with her family at Starved Rock State Park when Margaret was just 4 years old.

An uncle had encouraged Margaret and her 3-year-old sister to put their arms around his neck and off they went on an adventure.

“He climbed up the toe holes of Starved Rock,” said Margaret’s son Edward “Ted” Duncan Jr. of Glen Ellyn, “with those two little girls hanging off him.”

But when tragedy struck – such as the death of Margaret’s husband of eight years while he served in the Korean War or the severe injury of her late son Thomas in the Vietnam War that left him disabled and dependent on her – Margaret did more than simply hang on. She persevered and thrived.

First Margaret, a lifelong Joliet resident, returned to school. She graduated from Joliet Junior College in 1941, the College of St. Francis in 1956 and received her doctorate in 1975 from the College of Education at the University of Illinois.

A reading specialist, Margaret taught at Joliet Township High School, Joliet Catholic High School and Joliet Junior College. Ted said Margaret loved teaching.

“She always came home and talked about the kids,” Ted said. “She got her doctorate so she could help kids.”

Later, Margaret also became a deacon at First Presbyterian Church in Joliet. It was Margaret who teamed up with another church member to host a welcome party for Craig Herr, the church’s senior pastor, when Herr first came to the church 26 years ago, Ted said.

“She was a cheerful person who was always looking on the brighter side of life,” Ted said. “She loved learning and she had a strong faith.”

Ted credits Margaret’s parents for nurturing that lifelong love of learning and a spirit that loved others as she loved herself. Margaret’s father developed 32 patents for U.S. Steel, loved literature and knew Latin and Greek, Ted said.

Margaret’s mother was a kind woman, one who raised her siblings after her mother’s death, raised her own children and then helped raise Margaret’s three children – Ted, Thomas and Jane Duncan of Maine – after the death of Margaret’s husband, Captain Edward R. Duncan Sr.

Herr believes Margaret carried that caring spirit into her own ministry. As a deacon, Margaret visited the sick and the seniors to keep their connection to First Presbyterian Church alive and strong, Herr said.

But Margaret also supported Herr in the programs he initiated, showed care and concern for him and his family and maintained an upbeat and friendly spirit even at the end of her life when her health was not good, Herr said.

“Some people get to be very negative and dreary and she was just the opposite,” Herr said. “She was just a fun person to be around.”

Ted believes his mother’s knack for turning tragedy into opportunity best showed itself when Margaret handed him one-third of the money he needed to attend law school. Margaret had invested his father’s death benefit and used it to pay for her children’s college education, Ted added.

This was the same mother who, in 1959, packed her children into her little 1955 Plymouth and drove on two-lane roads all the way to Yellowstone National Park, Ted said. Margaret’s influence in his life made him a better learner and a better person, he added.

“I was very blessed,” Ted said.

Margaret died on Jan 21. She was 93.

• To feature someone in “An Extraordinary Life,” contact Denise M. Baran-Unland at 815-280-4122 or

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