Life Stories

LIFE STORIES: Basketball bookends Vietnam vet's story

Jim Duvendack poses for a photo at the Brown County Library. Duvendack, a Vietnam veteran and long-time basketball lover, returned home to run his family's farm after his father's death. | H-W Photo/Matt Dutton
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jan. 15, 2018 8:40 am

MOUNT STERLING, Ill. -- His first basketball hoop hung from a tree at the top of a hill in his yard, forcing him to become a master of shooting from the corner or risk having to trek down to retrieve the ball.

The eldest of four siblings, Jim Duvendack spent hours shooting hoops by himself at his family's rural Brown County home, about 4 miles outside of Mount Sterling. The love of the game has held steady for the 60 or so years since. He played on junior high and high school teams, on intercollegiate teams and later in several men's leagues. When he grew too old to keep up, he became a referee.

Duvendack's father was a Brown County farmer -- his mother a homemaker. He wanted to become an agriculture teacher.

By the time he enrolled at Western Illinois University, he had received some level of education in four different counties, having attended grade school in Morgan County, junior high in Pike County, high school in Brown County and college in McDonough County.

He changed his major just before his senior year, dropping the education element and picking up a history minor.

"When I started up at Western, there were about 2,000 kids in a class, but that was during the Vietnam War," Duvendack said. "While I was up there, they grew between 1,000 and 1,500 students a year. When I started, there were 8,500 students. The year I graduated, they had 13,100. They put up like six or seven buildings while I was there."

The university saw an influx of soldiers returning from Vietnam and taking advantage of the GI Bill. Duvendack's military career was slightly different.

He remembers that his draft number was in the 60s -- not good, he said, when you live in a small county. At the start of his junior year, that number came up. Because he was a college student, an appeal was submitted. Although it was ultimately denied, drawing out the process allowed him to finish his schooling before joining the service.

"My diploma and my draft notice came on the same day in the mail," he said.

One month after graduation, Duvendack was a soldier in the United States Army. His assignment, determined by test scores, was to serve as a pharmacist. He received four months of training.

"In the Army, you basically gave them pills or shots when people got sick," Duvendack said. "There wasn't a whole lot to it."

Deployment lasted four months for Duvendack, during which time he would have four different jobs. Shortly after arriving in the country -- he was stationed near Qui Nhon -- the Army closed the pharmacy in which he was working. He then became a HAM radio operator, and then an ambulance driver, and then a supply clerk.

"It was mostly the Viet Cong fighting the Vietnamese, so sometimes you'd see battles at night," he said. "They'd be shooting at each other."

His tour was cut short when his father had a heart attack. While in the process of applying to return home on emergency leave, his father died.

He returned to Illinois on the day of his father's funeral. The snow was blowing, blocking some loved ones in and preventing them from attending. The rapid change in weather -- in a matter of hours he had gone from the 80 degree tropics to the below-freezing Illinois winter -- is still vivid in his memory, as is the last time he saw his father.

"I was flying out to Washington to go to Vietnam," he said. "In the airport in St. Louis was the last time I saw my dad. I just happened to turn around, and he was looking out the window, watching the planes take off."

Stepping up

Duvendack was 23 when his father died. He moved back to the family farm to care for his mother and his 8-year-old brother and work down the debt the family had accumulated while getting the farm going.

"I got out (of the Army) and got married," he said. "I farmed that place a couple years before it got sold."

He had met Doris during his senior year in college and proposed to her before leaving for Vietnam. While he was in the Army, they communicated only through letters and a brief two-minute phone conversation on Christmas.

"Some of her friends told me that when she'd get a letter, she'd go out on the dorm steps and cry while reading them," he said.

After the farm sold, he took a job working in a National Starch and Chemical laboratory in Meredosia. He stayed there for almost 30 years.

"The lab was one of the more interesting places. Some of the other ones were kind of boring, and a lot of them were hazardous," he said.

Some of the other departments used the carcinogen benzene as a cleaning solution.

"I knew a lot of guys that died down there before they could retire," he said. "That's why I went to the lab. I could see it was one of the safer places."

Duvendack retired in January 2005, when the company was sold. He was 56 and decided to stay busy by substitute teaching. Now 69, he is still subbing and has been refereeing local basketball games since the 1970s. He also umpired for 35 years before calling it quits after last summer.

"I got into it, because dad was a fast-pitch pitcher," he said of playing baseball growing up and later being an umpire. "On game days, I would warm him up. One summer, he broke two catchers' thumbs."

Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.