John House Duncan, Sr.

John House Duncan, Sr. January 22, 1928 – January 10, 2020

John House Duncan, Sr. passed away peacefully on Sunday, the 12th of January 2020, just ten days shy of his 92nd birthday, surrounded by his devoted family. A native Houstonian, visionary, business leader, philanthropist, and proud Texan, John lived a spectacular life and knew he was blessed beyond measure. He ‘paid it forward’ every chance he got and felt a deep obligation to make the world a better place. John’s life is a master class in abundant optimism, vision, inspiration, hard work, kindness, generosity, and faith. His unique spirit will live on in all who knew him, especially his family, and he will be missed beyond measure.

After attending elementary and junior high in Houston public schools, John spent his high school years at Sewanee Military Academy in Tennessee. He then attended the University of Texas at Austin where he was a member of the SAE fraternity and earned his bachelor’s degree in Business Administration in 1949. He loved his time at U.T. and forged many friendships there.

Upon graduation, John joined the family business, Duncan Coffee, and worked there until December of 1950 when he joined the Air Force during the Korean War. During his service, he obtained the rank of first lieutenant. After the war, he returned to his work at the family business but eventually left for his next grand adventure.

The story of Gulf and Western is almost hard to believe. Who else but John Duncan, along with partner Charles Bluhdorn, could have taken a defunct company that made bumpers for Studebaker in 1958 and, through grit, determination and incredible tenacity, built it into American Parts System with 800 stores by the late 1960s? As the company continued to diversify and acquire numerous other companies over the years, it became Gulf & Western Industries with 100,000 employees by the early 1980s. John served as Gulf and Western’s first President and Co-founder and subsequently as Chairman of the Executive Committee. Later, the company became Paramount Communications. John also co-founded Gulf Consolidated Services and happily served as its Chairman for ten years.

John was a man of vision and action. When he saw a problem or need, he had the unique ability to pinpoint a solution. This was never more true than when he founded The Rise School, his proudest venture. Modeled after the Rise Center at The University of Alabama, The Rise School of Houston today serves as the standard for providing the highest quality of early education for children with and without disabilities so that they can become successful, contributing members of society.

John continued philanthropic work throughout his life. He served on the YMCA board and was deeply touched when friends surprised Brenda and him with the honor of naming the Clay Road branch the ‘Brenda and John Duncan YMCA.’ Most recently, John was the recipient of the YMCA’s “Legacy Award,” created in his honor to recognize 50 years of service.

The shared sense of mission, common goals, and teamwork John experienced as a member of many charity boards resulted in deep friendships. Most notably, he served in leadership positions on the boards of The Houston Metropolitan YMCA; the Brenda and John Duncan YMCA; The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors; The University of Texas Chancellor’s Council Executive Committee; the Southwestern University, Georgetown, Board of Trustees; and The Rise School of Houston.

John’s many contributions of his time and resources were honored with multiple awards, including: the University of Texas Distinguished Alumnus Award; induction into the McCombs School of Business Hall of Fame; the Edward Clark Distinguished Service Award; the American Marketing Association Annual Award, and a Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Southwestern University.

And then there was John’s fun side. He met every day with a sense of adventure and optimism. He had a twinkle in his eye, an infectious enthusiasm for life and boundless curiosity and energy. He also possessed a wicked sense of humor. His jokes, trip planning, and pranks were legendary. Time with John was never dull – there was always an ambitious schedule of activities, games, and surprises. Vacations were for adventure, fun, and action. And there were always stories–nothing made John happier than gathering a crowd and telling them a fine tale about a recent adventure or practical joke he played on a friend.

John and Brenda were a devoted couple who shared a full and rewarding life. They traveled the world, but also found joy in the beautiful routine of daily life. They cherished time spent with dear friends in Houston, Aspen, and the Texas Hill Country, which all held a special place in their hearts.

John was a collector of friends. As he grew older and lost many lifelong friends, John made new friends. There were two groups that met for years on a regular basis much to his delight. Affectionately know as ‘The Geezers’ and ‘The Wisdom Society,’ these groups were a constant source of community, friendship and fun…and a few tall tales.

John loved to have the wind in his face. He would ride anything with an ignition key. He was a pilot, a sailor, and even a motorcycle rider. He first earned his pilot’s license in 1947 at the age of 19. He purchased his first plane with three other partners in 1967 and proceeded to ‘wear out’ 13 subsequent planes. He obtained his Glider license in 1975; received his pilot’s rating in a Citation jet in 1976; and was awarded the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association gold wings for actively piloting aircraft for 65 continuous years. Not one to rest on his laurels, John earned his last rating for piloting an amphibious aircraft at the age of 78.

As he grew older, John was full of contentment and gratitude for his wonderful life. He often remarked that, if he could do it all over, he could never be so fortunate again. His beautiful family is his proudest legacy. He humbly said that the best way for friends and family to honor him was simply to live each day of their lives to the fullest.

John was the son of Lillian House and Charles William Duncan, Sr. He is survived by his loving wife of 37 years and professed soulmate, Brenda Pritchard Duncan. He is also survived by his adored children: John Duncan Jr. and wife, Eliza; Nena Duncan Marsh and husband, David; Wendy Payne and husband, Bill; and James Ward and Kelly Cox. John was the proud ‘Papa’ of Kate Duncan Oshins and husband, JJ, Emily Duncan, Lillian Duncan Rau and husband, Ryan, Duncan Marsh, Garrett Marsh, Graham Marsh, Blake Poston and wife Savannah, Margot Poston, Michael Poston, Reese Ward, James Ward, Katie Payne, and Whit Payne. He was thrilled to be the great-grandfather of Harrison Oshins, Parker Oshins, and Ford Oshins. Also surviving John is his much-loved brother Charles Duncan and wife, Anne, and their children: Mary Anne Dingus and husband, Bill; and Charles Duncan III and wife, Leslie; and their families who he held dear.

With grateful hearts, the family wishes to thank Neva Walker and Julie Berryman, as well as Nobie Lawrence, Yolanda Delgato, Jhonn Zuluaga, and Belzora Easley for their devoted service over many years.

A memorial service celebrating the life of John Duncan is to be held at two o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday, the 18th of January, in the Sanctuary of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, 3471 Westheimer Road in Houston, where Dr. Tom Pace, Senior Pastor, is to officiate. Honoring John at St. Luke’s United Methodist is most befitting as he was proud to be a charter member, joining the church with his parents and brother on its opening day at Lamar High School in 1947.

Immediately following, all are invited to greet the family during a reception to be held in the nearby Fellowship Hall.

Prior to the memorial service, the family will have gathered for a private interment at Glenwood Cemetery in Houston.

Those serving as Honorary pallbearers are his adored grandchildren.

“The Duncan family wishes to express our heartfelt thanks for the many acts of kindness and outpouring of support as we bid farewell to our beloved patriarch. These expressions of love have meant so much and lifted us up. We are humbled by your friendship.”

In lieu of customary remembrances, memorial contributions may be directed to: The Rise School, 5618 H. Mark Crosswell, Jr. St., Houston, TX 77021; or the Brenda and John Duncan YMCA, 10655 Clay Road, Houston, TX 77041; or to the charity of one’s choice.

Please visit Mr. Duncan’s online tribute at where memories and words of comfort and condolence may be shared electronically with his family. Additionally, the family invites those desiring to sign the memorial book in the grand foyer of Geo. H. Lewis & Sons, 1010 Bering Drive in Houston.