To see where the idealism motivating Duncan comes from, picture what he recalls as the "Berlin wall" of Chicago's 47th street – the dividing line between the gang violence and poverty of the South Side and the middle-class oasis of Hyde Park in the shadow of the University of Chicago.
Then, listen to Chicago educator Ron Raglin's recollection of peeking out his South Side apartment window as a child and spying the Duncan family's blue van crossing that line, mother Sue Duncan at the wheel, violating all urban conventional wisdom: "Here's this white lady and her three small children – that was like, 'Wow!' "
It was so peculiar that Mrs. Duncan was often stopped by police wondering if she was lost. She wasn't: She was on her daily route to the afterschool center that she founded in the Kenwood neighborhood in 1961 after discovering her 9-year-old Bible study students couldn't read. She was so dedicated to her cause that she took her three children with her, through a gang- and drug-addled area, every day from the time they were born.
Mr. Raglin, who went to the center as a child and now works for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), remembers the initial distrust when Sue Duncan began the program, including rumors that she put razor blades in the apples she distributed every day. For him, her center was a lifeline. And, he adds, it was key to the secretary of Education's worldview: "Arne's deep reservoir, his sense of service, of helping the least among us, that's where it comes from."