FanTake: Interview with a Legendary Iron Duke

Update 3/19/14: After we ran this story, WRAL became interested in doing a story on Charles Kernodle. Here is the video, his segment occurs a minute in.

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The Kernodle name is one that is held in high regards in the medical field throughout the Duke community and the Southeast of the United States. I have been blessed to have had the opportunity to sit down with one of them and have him share some amazing Duke Basketball memories.

Dr. Charles E Kernodle, Jr. started his academic career at Duke University in 1938 (The year that Duke Football team held all of their opponents scoreless until the 4th quarter of the Rose Bowl). He graduated in 1942, but was chosen to stay on at Duke as an intern in general surgery. Upon receiving his Doctor of Medicine Degree in 1944; he was sent overseas to Europe during World War II, where he served as an Army Medical Doctor. He was stationed in Paris, France where he worked in a hospital that oversaw 3,000 patients, 120 of those he personally treated.  When he returned home from war, he settled down back home in Burlington, North Carolina.

In 1950, Charles, in collaboration with his brothers and cousin helped establish the Kernodle Clinic in Alamance County. The clinic “came to be known as one of the most modern and best-equipped facilities of its kind in the South.” (Vincent, 2009). He practiced as a general surgeon until the mid-1980s, but hasn’t slowed down a bit. At the age of 96, he still gets around with pep in his step which might have you mistake him for a man in his sixties or seventies. “Uncle Charlie,” as I call him, still serves as one of the Williams High School football team’s medical physicians, a position he has held since 1949. In 2007, the school named the football field in his honor, because of his dedication to the team.

There is one thing that has always been a constant in his life; he has always stayed committed and dedicated to his Alma Mater, Duke University. Dr. Kernodle was one of the founding members of Iron Dukes Alumni Association, which consists of over 9,000 active members. He has been a season ticket holder for the Men’s Basketball Program for over forty years and he rarely misses a game in Cameron Indoor Stadium. He has been to thirteen out of the fifteen Final Fours that Duke has been to. He missed the first one in 1963 and the 1990 Final Four loss to UNLV, which we both agreed was worth missing. He developed a strong friendship with former Athletic Director, Tom Butters during his time around Duke Men’s Basketball. On several occasions, the two of them would go on hunting and fishing excursions, as well as, take family vacations down to the North Carolina coast.

Charles also has been able to call Mike Krzyzewski a good friend.  During Krzyzewski’s first years as head coach at Duke, Charles would help out as much as he could. There was one instance that Coach K actually had him write a recruiting letter to a recruit from Iowa. My great uncle told me the story of how Krzyzewski had him write a recruitment letter. Charles recalls, “There was this big country kid out of Iowa that we were looking to get, Coach knew that I loved to fish and hunt, so he had me write a recruitment letter to the kid telling him all about the outdoors of North Carolina and how wonderful the hunting and fishing was here. I gave him the letter to look over and Coach was grateful. He sent it off, but we didn’t end up getting him.”

Before the team had a video director, the coaching staff would have Charles tape games of upcoming opponents. He taped about a dozen games in 1991 for Coach K and his staff to use.  He mentioned the time where he had taped two UNLV games for the staff and brought them into the locker room before one of the home games. Charles told me that he peaked around the corner and he noticed Coach K sitting with the staff going over the game plan. “I told Coach that I didn’t want to bother them,” but that Krzyzewski quickly replied, “Come on in, you’re on the staff.”

Since his retirement from his medical practice, Charles has kept himself busy by tending to his tomato plants in his garden. With every harvest in the summer, he always saves some for delivering to Coach Krzyzewski and his family. He speaks highly of Coach and his family, saying that “Mickie and their girls have always been so nice to me. Whenever the girls were younger, they would rush out to my truck to give me a hug and thank me for the tomatoes.” His vegetable deliveries are not just for the Krzyzewski household. He also makes special deliveries to Coach Cutcliffe, Tom Butters, and other members of the Duke Athletic staff.

Throughout the past seventy years of Duke Athletics’ history, Dr. Kernodle has been there to witness most of it. I was able to conduct an informal interview with him just listen to some of his memories about Duke Basketball.

Q: What are some of your favorite Duke/UNC Rivalry memories?

A:  “I remember the game in 1952 where Dick Groat scored 48 points and had 12 assists against the Tar Heels. That was one of the biggest games that I can recall. Duke won in a rout, 94-64.”

Q: Who are/were some of your favorite Duke players?

A: “I loved watching Johnny Dawkins play. He had such natural ability to drive to the basket and score. I enjoyed watching Jay Bilas play, he wasn’t the best athlete, but he gave it everything he had. Another one of my favorites was Mike Gminski; he was a such a gifted rebounder.”

Q: What is your favorite Duke Basketball Memory?

A: “I traveled to thirteen of the fifteen Final Four games that Duke has been to. The one that I remember the most was the Final Four game against Maryland in 2001. They were playing so awful and I think they were down by twenty-two points, but I just knew that they would comeback. I looked at my brother who was with me in attendance, and I told him that we would win and I’ll be darned if they didn’t.”

Q: Which Duke team was your favorite to watch?

A: “The Back-to-Back Championship teams in 1991 and 1992 teams were my favorite. They put Duke Basketball on the map with their National Championship wins. I loved Laettner’s attitude and Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill were so much fun to watch. They were just a great overall team.”

Q: How has the game changed since you first started going to Duke games?

A: “Well for one thing, the players are just better athletes. They’re faster and stronger. They’re better shooters and they just score more. “

Q: Why is Cameron Indoor Stadium such a great place to watch a game?

A: “The atmosphere at Cameron is so great; the stuff that the students (Crazies) do in unison is amazing. When Coach K  first started, we weren’t that good, so tickets were easy to come by, but once Coach got them straight, it’s been sold out ever since.”

Q: What are your thoughts on Jabari Parker?

A: “He’s some ballplayer, I’m afraid he’s going to leave, but can’t blame him. I think that if Duke doesn’t make the Final Four this year, he might stay and team up with the big recruits coming in. I know that the Okafor kid coming in is from the same area where Jabari grew up, so he might stay to play with him, but I can’t blame him either way for the choice he makes.”

Q: Who were some of the players from UNC that you despised?

A: “Well I never despised or hated any player from another team; I always had a lot of respect for UNC’s program and their players. One guy I can think of was Doug Moe that played for UNC. He gave us a tough time. I didn’t care too much for Hansbrough; I think that he got away with too many travels.”

Q: Were there any players from other teams that you enjoyed to watch?

A: “I loved watching Randolph Childress from Wake Forest. I loved the speed and toughness he played with. He’s turned out to be a good assistant coach for them now.”

My Great Uncle and I haven’t shared too many Duke memories. Most of the moments that we have shared have been when we are surrounded by our family. Family has always been important to Charles. He still takes care of my grandmother, his younger sister, by bringing her tomatoes from his garden and going on trips with her to the beach.

irondukeThe one Duke memory we share came last week when he invited me to accompany him to the Duke/Maryland basketball game. Being able to see a game live in Cameron Indoor Stadium is an exhilarating experience that only a few people can claim to have had. I was truly honored and thrilled to be going to any Duke game in Cameron, but to be able to attend the final ACC Regular Season match-up between two hated rivals, was something special to share with Uncle Charlie. It didn’t hurt that it was a game that came down to a nail-biting finish, where Duke used their heavily criticized defense to seal the victory.

The game itself was amazing, but the thing that I will cherish the most from the game will be meeting all of Charlie’s alumni friends. These Iron Dukes, though they are well into the twilight of their lives, still come to every home game and cheer just as loudly as the Cameron Crazies that jump and shout just a few rows in front. I will remember shaking hands and being introduced to many of the patriarchs of the Iron Dukes and how everyone knew my Great Uncle, like he was some sort of celebrity.

I remember when we first walked in and he greeted Coach K’s assistant with a handshake and asked her how her new born grandson was doing. At the age of 96, Charlie is still as sharp as ever and you hardly ever see him without a smile on his face. He remembers people’s names and faces with a degree of consistency that, at the age of twenty-eight, I find hard to fathom. The lasting memory that I will hold onto for the rest of my life was walking into the Duke Basketball Museum, where he and I swapped stories of the players and I’ll never forget the look of excitement on his face that he had that showed just how proud he was to be a Duke Blue Devil. I am forever grateful for that night in Cameron and for being privy to such wonderful stories of Duke Basketball history.

A lot of things change throughout our lives. We naturally age. We lose our hearing and/or our vision, we don’t move as fast as we used to. All of these factors above have affected how my great uncle lives his everyday life, but the one thing that Father Time hasn’t been able to take away is his love for Duke University. He will forever be an Iron Duke and be a Cameron Crazie.

You can follow Craig on Twitter at @cmdod

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