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Longtime surgeon Lawrence J. Duke served on Town Council during contentious time

Dr. Lawrence J. Duke, a former mayor and councilmember, died May 24 at his Tiburon home after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 75.

Dr. Duke was a vascular and cardiothoracic surgeon, spending 43 years affiliated with Marin General Hospital. He also served four years on the Tiburon Town Council during a particularly contentious time in the town’s history.

With property values in Tiburon soaring in the 1980s, developers started buying up prime tracts of land on and near Tiburon Ridge and other areas boasting great views. Many people in town wanted to slow and limit growth, but they disagreed on how aggressively to do that.

“The mid-1980s was a period of increasing political turmoil resulting from controversy over the nature and magnitude of residential and commercial development,” Dr. Duke later wrote in his personal recollections of his time on the council, which were shared with The Ark by his wife, Darby. “The strife culminated in the election of 1986, in which the electorate denied three incumbents’ re-election.”

Those three incumbents were Tiburon Town Councilmembers Larry Smith, Gary Spratling and Valerie Bergmann, all of whom had done a turn as mayor.

Duke was one of three relatively unknown challengers who replaced them. In the same election, voters also approved a referendum authorizing a two-year building moratorium, instituted to buy time to amend the Tiburon General Plan to significantly downzone all but the smallest vacant properties to allow far less development.

With considerable opposition from the two councilmembers he’d been elected with, Dr. Duke, aided by longtime Tiburon Town Manager Bob Kleinert, Planning Director Scott Anderson and Tiburon Town Attorney Gary Ragghianti, worked to settle or successfully litigate at least a half-dozen lawsuits by builders whose projects were affected by the moratorium and the downzoning. The litigation cost the town more than $1 million.

With the Tiburon General Plan done and the moratorium over, the Town Council then tackled a complete revision of the zoning ordinance to align with the new general plan.

“The result of our efforts was to provide a sustainable framework for the continued development of privately owned property, while at the same time protecting the rights of current residents to continued enjoyment of their homes and town,” Dr. Duke wrote in his personal records.

Smith said that even though he and the other councilmembers were voted out and replaced with Dr. Duke, Karen Nygren and Frank Shaw, who campaigned in favor of a building moratorium, Dr. Duke “turned out to be a hero.”

“When he got into the situation on the council and realized the town was going to be sucked into litigation over the moratorium for the next several years, costing the town a ton of money, he stepped in and did an about-face on his stance on the building moratorium and helped negotiate an outcome the town could handle,” Smith said. “That takes a lot of courage and some smarts as well. He turned out to be a person of real character. I’ll miss him.”

Dr. Duke served on the council until 1990 and was mayor for 30 months between 1986 and 1989, his term lengthened at one point by default because of a conflict between other members of the council.

He was born April 16, 1945, in Detroit to Casmer Duke and Lillian Orbin Duke; both sets of his grandparents emigrated from Hungary. Early on, Dr. Duke’s father worked in a factory but later owned a contracting firm. On the weekends, he and his wife would take their children up to the family soybean and wheat farms in Tuscola County, Mich. Dr. Duke worked on the farm on weekends and all summer as a boy, and he continued to love it his entire life.

He received his bachelor’s degree in 1967 from the University of Notre Dame, where he played on the school’s first lacrosse team. He went on earn his medical degree at the University of Michigan Medical School, where he was invited to join the Galens Medical Society and was inducted into Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society.

He did his internship at the University of California at San Francisco and residencies at UCSF, St. Mary’s Medical Center and the University of Iowa, where he had fellowships in vascular surgery and cardiothoracic surgery. During his medical training, he took two years off and attended law school at the University of San Francisco but ultimately decided a career in law was not for him.

Dr. Duke became a private practitioner in vascular and thoracic surgery and was affiliated with Marin General Hospital and St. Mary’s until 1989, when he began to work solely for Marin General in his field and on the trauma team. He retired in 2014.

Dr. Duke and Darby Duke, who owns the firm Eldercare Specialists, were married in 1971 and moved to San Francisco the same year. In 1972, they bought their first house in Tiburon, with Dr. Duke remodeling the property himself. The couple moved to the Reedland Woods neighborhood in 1976.

In his late 40s, he obtained his pilot’s license, flying his Cessna out of Petaluma Municipal Airport. Until his Parkinson’s disease made it difficult to get on his bike, he owned two motorcycles, which he liked to take on trips, mostly in the Bay Area. He was an amateur Civil War historian who had visited all the battlefield sites. He also was a fine woodworker and craftsman.

In addition to Darby Duke, Dr. Duke is survived by the couple’s two daughters, Suzanne Duke of Tiburon and Catherine Ricker of McLean, Va.; two siblings, Ann Marie McNair and James Duke, both of Peachtree, Ga.; three grandchildren, Jack and twins Michael and Christopher; and numerous nieces, nephews and cousins.

A memorial mass will be held at St. Hilary Catholic Church in Tiburon once county restrictions on gatherings are lifted. Dr. Duke’s remains will be buried in the cemetery next to St. Agatha’s Church in Cass City, Mich.

Donations may be made to St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin, PO Box 150527, San Rafael, CA 94915.

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