A Conversation with Mike Duffy ’72: Businessman, Artist, Author, and Veteran

Mike Duffy ’72, taken December 2021
Mike Duffy ’72, taken December 2021

For decades, businessman, artist, author, and Vietnam War veteran Michael Duffy ’72 has been a proud member of the Colorado College alumni community. He gives frequently to CC, and in myriad ways — as a longtime Annual Fund supporter, President’s Circle donor, creator of the Michael J. Duffy Family Endowed Scholarship, benefactor to CC’s Special Collections, and this year, a 50th Reunion committee volunteer.

Duffy will be inducted into the Fifty Year Club this fall, alongside fellow members of the Class of 1972. At Homecoming and Family Weekend, Oct. 6-9 on the CC campus, Duffy will share more about his contributions to the CC Special Collections — including seven years of postcard correspondence with late CC printmaking professor and artist Mary Chenoweth, as well as a collection of art books signed by world-renowned American artists. These will be on display on during the Special Collections Open Hours at Charles L. Tutt Library on Friday, Oct. 7, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and the discussion with Duffy is set for 1:30-2 p.m.

We sat down with Duffy to reflect on his journey to Colorado College after serving as a U.S. Army lieutenant in Vietnam — an experience he recounts in his book, “From Chicago to Vietnam: A Memoir of War” — and what motivates him to stay engaged with CC 50 years after graduation.

Tell us how you found your way to Colorado College.

Well, you know I was in the military. But I didn’t want to go into the military. What I wanted to do was go to school at the Art Institute of Chicago, because I really love painting and the arts and drawing. I applied, put a portfolio together, sent them my high school record, and was promptly denied admission. So, I started working — because I was determined to reapply.

But in those years, when I was a teenager, Lyndon B. Johnson was building up our forces in Vietnam, I soon was drafted. I was sent to Louisiana as a young Army private, and it was there I was asked to become an officer. I went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for Officer Candidate School (OCS) — in the 1960s all you needed was a high school diploma and good exam results on the Army’s many tests.

Spring 1968, Binh Son Rubber Plantation, South Vietnam, where Lt. Mike Duffy learned of his acceptance to CC. (Duffy pictured at far left).

Spring 1968, Binh Son Rubber Plantation, South Vietnam, where Lt. Mike Duffy learned of his acceptance to CC. (Duffy pictured at far left).

I finished OCS then I was sent to Fort Carson, Colorado, I was able to live off-base and as an officer I had a lot of freedom to come and go as I pleased. My roommate was a fellow named Jim Avery. I told him about my plans to attend college after the Army, and he said, I should consider Colorado College. He told me it is a great school, and it’s right here in Colorado Springs. So, I made an appointment with the admissions director, Dick Wood.

I applied to CC in the fall of 1967, however, before I found out if CC would accept me, I was sent to Vietnam as a young second Lieutenant. I arrived in South Vietnam on the first day of the massive Tet offensive, 1968. My first job during the year 1968 was the officer in charge of running ammunition convoys up Highway one. Soon I was promoted to 1st Lieutenant, and they sent me out in the bush with the field artillery. It was spring 1968, and I still hadn't heard from Dick Wood about CC. I was biting my fingernails. I ended up at a French rubber plantation, our living quarters were in a beautiful French villa taken over by the Army. It was on the veranda one night that I opened my mail, and a letter from Dick Wood. It read something like this: “Dear Lt. Duffy, even though your ACT results were on our lower side and your high school record is on the undistinguished side, because of your military record, we've decided it to accept you.” Dick Wood took a risk on me. I could not have received a more welcome letter than that, because I had already been in Vietnam six months, and it was just horrible over there.  Dick Wood’s letter gave me hope. Arriving home from Vietnam to Colorado College, was like walking through the gates of paradise.

Subsequent to my leaving, our unit was overrun by the V.C. Twenty-two men were killed on our small base at Xuan Loc, including my captain, Ross Culpepper, who was a friend of mine. So, when Dick Wood made the decision to let me into CC, he may have saved my life.

Do you have a favorite memory as a CC student?

My favorite memory, without a doubt, was arriving at CC. In Vietnam I saved almost every penny of my officer’s salary and I used that money to do two things — pay my tuition at CC and buy a car. I drove out to Colorado Springs the first week in January 1969, I got a motel room and went into what was then Cossitt Gym. There were long tables that each professor was sitting behind, taking the names of students who were enrolling in their classes. That was how basic it was.

A guy comes up to me as I walk down on the steps into the gym — he was wide eyed, and remember, I didn’t know a soul — and he said, ‘Are you Mike Duffy?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘We heard you were coming from Vietnam.’ I said, ‘Who are you?’ And he said, ‘I’m one of a handful of Vietnam veterans that started last year. I just want to welcome you.’ Well, I couldn't believe it, I mean, I choked up. That fellow’s name was Jim Pearlmutter. He was the welcoming committee for me — he and a few others. A guy named Mike Madden, and a guy named Charles Hunt. You know, they kind of cobbled together my first group of friends. That's the strongest first memory I have of Colorado College. Just this guy right back from Vietnam only a year earlier, welcoming me. It was something I didn't expect, but it was really nice.

Why do you choose to give back to CC?

Because CC and Dick Wood took a chance on me — I started giving to CC the first year I graduated, in 1972. I sent $35. I think if you look at the record, I've given every year, so it's just important to me to give back. I really feel a responsibility to give back to CC because they helped me in so many ways. I believe the soul of motivation to give back is responsibility.

A postcard from former CC professor Mary Chenoweth to Mike Duffy, now part of CC’s Special Collections.

A postcard from former CC professor Mary Chenoweth to Mike Duffy, now part of CC’s Special Collections.

I'll never forget a lesson in responsibility I learned from my father. One day, in our apartment. I grew up in a 3-flat apartment in Chicago. I came home from school. I was probably in seventh grade. I was, you know, probably drawing pictures, not doing my homework. My father came home from work, he worked for the New York Central Railroad. He sees me, and he says, ‘Come over by the window. See that candy bar wrapper sitting on the front lawn? Remember, it was an apartment building. He said, ‘Did you see that when you came home?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I did, but that's not mine.’ He looked at me, and said, ‘I don't care who threw the wrapper on the ground this is where we live. We don't own this place, we rent, and we have a responsibility to keep it clean.’ He sent me out to pick up the candy bar wrapper. So, in a nutshell, that was how I grew up, and that was a very good lesson.

Visit coloradocollege.edu/give to make a gift to Colorado College. Click here to view the complete schedule for 2022 Homecoming and Family Weekend — including an opportunity to meet Duffy and view his contributions to CC’s Special Collections.

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