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Mike Duncan: Mentor to Eastern Kentucky

by Carl Hoffman

In 1984 Valerie Hardin graduated as class valedictorian from Lawrence County High School, in the rugged hills of eastern Kentucky. She was 17 years old. The future was hers. "I thought I could conquer the world," she remembers. "I was very ambitious and I equated success with big money and big cities." Then Hardin met Mike Duncan, who rocked Hardin's dreams with a simple question. Had she ever considered returning to the region after college?

Duncan was no ordinary hometown booster. A native of Oneida, Kentucky, and a lawyer by education, he was chairman and chief executive officer of the First National Bank of Louisa, in Lawrence County, and chairman and chief executive officer of Inez Deposit Bank in Martin County. Years before he had made a conscious decision to stay in rural Kentucky, and he was a living example that the smart and ambitious didn't have to go elsewhere to succeed.

Without asking for an answer, Duncan put Hardin to work at minimum wage as a bank teller. She worked five summers and four Christmas breaks. She graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law in 1991. Then she came home to Louisa, population 1,500, as assistant vice president and in-house counsel of Duncan's two banks. In February 1996 she finally left Duncan's employ. She didn't go far, however: the law offices of Hardin and Hogan opened right next door to the First National Bank of Louisa. "Ever since I was 17, Mike has been a mentor," Hardin says. "He has opened doors and provided contacts, and every summer we talked about what I wanted to do and how to do it."

Duncan's relationship with Hardin would be remarkable enough if she were the only such person he had mentored. But since 1981, 73 high school and college students—all, like Hardin, among the top in their class—have interned at one of Duncan's banks. Nineteen are still in school and 54 have graduated from college. Out of those fifty-four, 49 have remained in Kentucky, and 37 have remained in the immediate area. They are bankers, lawyers, teachers, police officers, insurance agents, even a minister. "Mike has made a mark on eastern Kentucky that will be felt for a long time," says Marsha Haney, one of Duncan's first interns who now owns and operates her own insurance agency in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. "He was a mentor before I knew what a mentor was. The experience opened every door for me, and a lot of what I do now is directly attributable to what I did then."

"We want to retain the best and the brightest right here," says Duncan, a deliberate, soft-spoken man. "This internship is meant to be a life-changing experience."

Every spring Duncan invites the top 10 percent of the junior class at Lawrence County High School, and the top 25 percent of the junior class from Sheldon Clark High School, in Martin County, to a luncheon. There, he presents a $500 scholarship to a boy and girl from each county, tells the students about his internship program, and invites them to apply. There is no fixed number of positions available because interns can return every summer, winter, and spring break for as long as they wish. Sometimes they stay for a year; sometimes, if they attend graduate school, as long as seven. Some years Duncan has one or two openings, other years more. He interviews every candidate and he doesn't care whether they're interested in banking or not. "I look for a variety of people, and I ask them what they want to be doing in five years. And I talk to them about the opportunities of the area. I don't give them a view through rose-colored glasses, but I tell them that there are opportunities and that I can probably help them with what they want to do."

All interns start out as tellers and are paid minimum wage. Over time they move up, working in various bank departments and undertaking special projects ranging from rewriting the banks' employee handbooks to spending long hours in the county courthouse analyzing the banks' competitors' mortgages. Marsha Haney ended up undertaking a summer-long market analysis of other banks' services. "It was my own show," she says. "I had my own office and I'd mystery-shop at other banks; it was a real neat time." Valerie Hardin created and ran summer enrichment camps, sponsored by the banks, for local students. And a senior intern helps run the program itself every summer.

The Service Concept

From the beginning, Duncan has drawn inspiration from his own experiences. After graduating from law school in 1970, he spent a year interning in the Kentucky General Assembly. "The man I worked for became a mentor. He taught me the concept of service and told me that when I got into a successful position I needed to give back, to do for others what had been done for me." Duncan assumed he would go into politics. His father-in-law owned the Inez Deposit Bank, however, and when he got ill, Duncan and his wife, Joanne, also an attorney, agreed to help run the bank for a year. Like the Jimmy Stewart character in It's a Wonderful Life, the Duncans agreed to stay a second year and then never left, eventually buying control of both the Inez bank and the First National Bank of Louisa. "The area was fairly isolated then," says Duncan, "and we chose to stay, but we agreed that we could each do something else besides just banking one day a week." Duncan became deeply involved in his community—he is currently chairman of the Republican party in Kentucky and director of the Christian Appalachian Project, and he has chaired the boards of both Morehead State University and Alice Lloyd College—and in 1978 he hired his first three interns.

In the beginning Duncan simply emphasized the bank work itself, and giving as much individual counseling as he could to his interns. As time passed, however, he longed to do more. In the mid 1980s he started emphasizing community service, directing his interns to create summer enrichment camps for local primary-school-age children and a "great books" program for high schools, along with doing their regular work at the bank. At the end of every summer he required a written report on their experience. And he began taking one intern a year from outside the area to, as Duncan puts it, "mix things up a bit." In 1989 he went to work for President George Bush in Washington, D.C., as the White House assistant director of public liaison, where he got a good look at the mix of work and educational seminars at the White House Fellows program. Upon his return to Kentucky he decided to emulate the program. Since 1993 Duncan's interns have signed a contract promising not just to do their regular jobs, but also to attend eight weekly seminars and speeches, all relating to a topic that the interns and Duncan agree upon at the start of the summer. In 1995 the topic was economic development; in 1996 it is Appalachian culture. Speakers have included Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Paul Patton, former Appalachian Regional Commission Co-Chairman Hilda Legg, Father Ralph Beiting, founder of the Christian Appalachian Project, local judges, journalists, educators, and Appalachian legend Jean Ritchie. At the end of the 1996 summer each intern will chart his genealogy back five generations. "You have to work at the bank, study, and write a paper, and it's more work than going to school," says the 1996 senior intern, Jaime Williamson, "but it's great. I've met so many people, including the president of Alice Lloyd College, where I go to school."

"Mike has brought in so many people whose resources will be wonderful for my students," says intern Tracy Slone Runyon, 23, who came to the bank a junior in high school and worked each vacation through her college graduation in the spring of 1996. In the fall, after her last summer at the bank, she will start her career, teaching at Johnson County Middle School. "When I was in high school I wanted to get as far away from Martin County as I could," she says. "The idea of raising my kids here was incredible. But Mike has instilled in all of us that we can do whatever we want to with our lives—he pushes that whenever he can—and he's made me want to stay and stop the export of minds from here."

If there's one opinion common to every intern, past and present, it's that Mike Duncan has pushed them to be their best, and to return to a region that needs them. "Mr. Duncan has tried to instill in us that even if we go away to get an education we should come back," says Jennifer Begley, a junior at Transylvania University and first-year intern. "I always felt that Mike was a person you could talk to," says Crystal Tucker, who interned as a high school senior in 1987 and is now a paralegal for the state of Kentucky. "He was always supportive, but if you said you were going to do something, he'd make you say why, and make you prove your statements. I don't even know how to measure the experience. It was priceless."

Mike Duncan agrees. As the head of a family institution that is not driven by quarterly reports, he claims to pay little attention to the cost of his intern program. "I'm afraid to look at what it costs," he says. "It is civic capital building that has long-term significance for the community." And besides, he says, "this is much more fun than banking."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC.