KNOXVILLE — John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr. looks to the past as he works on the country’s future whether he’s at home in Farragut or in his Knoxville or Washington, D.C., congressional offices.
The past is reflected in political memorabilia collected during a lifetime, including 23 1/2 years in the U.S. House, and items that belonged to his dad, John Duncan Sr., the late Knoxville mayor and congressman.
Books make up a lot of the collection, written by fellow Republicans, Democrats and others. Duncan, 64, has a reputation as a voracious reader, and he can tell stories about and from the books.
He also has items from Air Force One; a statue of Mother Teresa from an Albanian president; flat irons from his father’s collection; a white elephant that belonged to the late U.S. Rep. Howard H. Baker Sr.; and 22 wooden eggs from White House Easter egg rolls, although on the day a News Sentinel photographer and reporter visited, only 20 were on a shelf.
“The [five] grandkids play in here. They [the missing eggs] are probably in the curtains,” he said about the office in his home. “This is a lived-in house.”
The home office is full of his “stuff,” a point not missed by wife Lynn.
“I love it junked up,” the congressman said.
“It needs to be straightened out,” his wife said.
PRIMER ON POLITICS
Duncan pulls out a favorite book, “All Politics Is Local and Other Rules of the Game,” written by former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill with Gary Hymel. O’Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat, served with Duncan Sr. The present congressman did not serve with O’Neill but the two knew each other. O’Neill, who died in 1994, has included an item about the Duncans in his “primer” on politics.
The story, “A Vote’s A Vote,” is about a woman named Hazel West from Scott County, which at one time was in the 2nd Congressional District represented by the Duncans. In the book, West tells young Duncan that she didn’t vote for his father because he was “too good a man.” However, Duncan’s father tried to persuade West to vote for him because her sisters were going to.
“But they don’t take this as seriously as I do and they don’t think as much of you as I do,” West told Duncan Sr. Then Duncan Jr. asks West if she had ever voted for him and she replies, “Yes. You’re not nearly as good a man as your father was.”
Duncan likes to share the story even though it’s a put-down.
O’Neill inscribed the book to him, saying, “Your Dad was a great guy, hope you are half the fellow.”
Photographs are on bookshelves along with statues and odds and ends. There’s a photo of Jimmy and Lynn Duncan with Heath Shuler, a former University of Tennessee and Washington Redskins quarterback, before he became a Democratic congressman from North Carolina. It’s inscribed, “To Lynn — The sweetest woman in Tennessee.”
“He offered to host a fundraiser,” Duncan explains. Then Duncan assisted Shuler with a fundraiser for a charity in Washington, he said.
His dad’s antique flat irons, the old-fashioned kind for clothes, are near the Shuler photograph.
“He liked to go to flea markets. He had several hundred of them. The International Association of Flat Irons invited him to Paris to a convention to show off his flat irons,” Duncan said, laughing.
Did he go?
“Nah,” he said.
On another shelf is a gold-painted bust of Abraham Lincoln.
“I waited (one year) until Christmas Eve to go Christmas shopping. The only place I could find open was a Revco Drug Store. I bought the bust for my dad,” Duncan said.
Among his items are symbols of his attempts to cut waste in the federal budget.
He has a huge ax given to him by the International Firefighters group when he was named congressional member of the year, and a giant pair of scissors from First Baptist Concord.
“That was for the fight against triple trailer trucks,” Duncan said.
A framed mini-page featuring Duncans Jr. and Sr. was published in more than 1,400 newspapers in the late 1970s.
“It’s me and my dad campaigning in the Stinking Creek area of Campbell County,” Duncan said.
The items from Air Force One, the U.S. president’s transport of choice, feature a box of M&Ms from the days of Ronald Reagan, and a box of cards from when George H.W. Bush traveled.
The story on the statue of Mother Teresa is that Duncan led a congressional delegation to Albania.
“It was the first since World War II,” he said.
There’s also a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey on a book shelf. The distillery sent it in 2005. It just sits there, unused, because the congressman doesn’t drink alcoholic beverages.
“He’s about to drive me to,” his wife quipped.