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The kid was about 13 when he had a life-changing experience. He already showed signs that he would be tall but he had such a slight build that the men at the firehouse he passed on his way to school called him Skinny. That was much better than the nickname school bullies gave him, Little Girl.
Skinny liked the firemen from the first time they met because, when they teased him, it was in a friendly way. The bullies at school picked on him mercilessly.
Skinny went into the firehouse that day because he had a problem. You see, one of his few close friends was his dog. The huge curly-haired Airedale Terrier loved the boy. If somebody saw Skinny, they saw his dog, Duke.
Duke loved the boy and wanted to go everywhere with him, including to school, where the dog wasn’t exactly welcome. Skinny asked his firemen friends if he could leave the dog with them in the morning on his way to school. He’d stop again on his walk home and retrieve his furry pal.
During his more frequent stops at the fire station after that his friendship with and respect for the men grew. They liked him too, and started calling him Little Duke for his dog who they dubbed Big Duke.
One day Little Duke confided in one of the men that he was being picked on by neighborhood bullies. As mentioned earlier, the gangly youth was being teased mercilessly about his name and slender build. One bigger kid in particular threatened physical violence on the boy.
As men do, the fire fighters encouraged Skinny to stand up for himself. One of the men had been a competitive boxer and took it upon himself to teach the kid self defense. The boy was a quick learner and gained confidence in his physical abilities.
When the bully picked on him not long after that and things got physical, Little Duke stood up for himself. The two boys went toe-to-toe and blows were exchanged. After the skirmish, they ended their fight with no clear winner which, of course, means no clear loser either. It was a victory, of sorts, for our young hero.
The fight earned Skinny respect at school and teasing abated. Instead of calling him Little Girl, they adopted the nickname the firemen had given him.
With his newfound self confidence and tougher-sounding nickname, the boy began to thrive at school. He made good grades, played football, and took part in several theatrical productions as well as being on the debate team. He contributed to the school newspaper’s sports column and was the president of the Latin Society. Little Duke became more popular and was elected to the student government. His slight form filled out and his athleticism improved. He stopped being Little Duke and became, simply Duke.
His prowess on the gridiron earned the young man a football scholarship to USC (University of Southern California) in 1925 and he pledged the Sigma Chi fraternity. Unfortunately for Duke, his college football career ended due to a broken collarbone. He kept working hard academically but the loss of his football scholarship left him unable to pay for his education. He was forced to drop out of college.
A friendly relationship between Duke’s college football coach and western film star Tom Mix, along with his knowledge of football, helped earn him parts as an extra in a couple movies. He played a football player in a few movies, including Brown of Harvard (1926) and Drop Kick (1927).
With his college career ended, the young man continued finding work in the movie industry whenever he could. He earned bit parts in several movies but was working as a prop boy when director Raoul Walsh saw him moving furniture and cast him in his first starring role, in the movie The Big Trail (1930). At one point during discussions about the young actor who wasn’t in attendance, Walsh suggested that he be billed under the screen name, John Wayne. The movie was not a success, but the name was.
Taking roles where he could get them John Wayne played a corpse in The Deceiver (1931) and one of the first singing cowboys in Riders of Destiny (1933) as Singing Sandy. He made his appearance in that movie playing a guitar and singing while riding a horse…despite the fact that he could neither sing nor play the guitar. He could ride a horse though, but kept working with stuntmen to improve that ability, along with other Western skills, such as fighting. Some of the fighting techniques he developed with famed stuntman Yakima Canutt are still in use today.
He was tapped by John Ford to play in Stagecoach (1939). The movie was a huge success and John Wayne became a mainstream star.
John Wayne would go on to make a total of 162 films and become one of the 20th century’s biggest stars.
To think it all started when the skinny kid was teased about his name. Born Marion Robert Morrison, even in his adulthood, John “The Duke” Wayne introduced himself by the nickname he earned from a dog that used to follow him to school.
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(above) That tall skinny kid is the young Marion Morrison standing behind his dog, Duke. This is around the time his life was changed forever by a visit to the fire station.
(below) Morrison won a scholarship to play football at USC, but his career was cut short by a shoulder injury.
(below) This is the way most of us remember John Wayne, even using his childhood dog’s name as his nickname.