Around 70 years ago, an undergrad from Webster Groves, Missouri, sat in the bowels of Perkins reading century-old copies of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. He was enthralled by the novelistic style of the paper’s Civil War reporting—he called the approach to journalism a “distinct voice for America.”

Two decades later, the undergrad—Clay Felker—became founding editor of New York Magazine. Of course by then, he was no longer the chiseled, inconspicuous Dukie who had poured over the Tribune. His hair had begun to thin and people throughout New York knew him as an idea man, a gifted editor and a stimulating conversationalist—in short, a choice guest for any metropolitan dinner party.

But before he stepped foot in the offices of Life, Sports Illustrated, Esquire or New York, Felker carried on a head-spinning on-again-off-again relationship with Duke, and it was here that he found his voice as an editor.

Felker arrived at the University in 1942, but left the following year to join the navy. He was discharged in the spring of 1946 and got a job in New York selling ads for The Sporting Goods Dealer. The next fall, Felker returned to Duke with the other veterans—an experience he characterized as “truly happy and wonderful.” In 1948, Felker was elected to serve as editor of The Chronicle, but was expelled the same year for keeping fellow student Leslie Blatt—whom he married in 1949—out past the Woman’s College curfew. Felker returned to Duke again in 1950 and graduated the following year. In addition to his work with The Chronicle, Felker also contributed to The Archive—Duke’s literary magazine—and served as assistant editor of Duke 'n' Duchess—Duke’s “first student-supported humor magazine,” which was shut down in 1951 by President Hollis Edens.

Today, the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library houses a biographical paper trail of it all, in the form of the Clay Felker Papers, a document collection ten boxes tall. In it there are clippings from Felker’s early work at The Chronicle, a copy of a book he wrote on hall-of-fame baseball manager Casey Stengel, editorial memos addressed to the staff of New York Magazine and half-full steno pads scrawled during Felker’s tenure as a Berkeley lecturer.

As I parsed through the crates of old papers, I wondered how Duke had acquired the materials and whether Felker had ever considered that one day some curious undergraduate might pour over his correspondences, memos and notebooks, as he once poured over yellowing copies of the Tribune.

Felker’s encounter with Horace Greeley and his band of newsmen among the Perkins shelves became a kind of New Journalism origin story. Like Arthur and Excalibur or Dorothy and her ruby slippers, the narrative reporting style was Felker’s weapon of choice and it became iconic as he and his contemporaries entered a kind of literary rockstar-dom. Yes, the comparison is hyperbolical, but I like the idea that one day some curious Dukie might claim the Clay Felker Papers as inspiration for their championing of a newly-popularized literary style; that a cycle of influence might keep spinning away in Duke’s libraries—my guess is it’s bound to.

Following Felker’s death in 2008, Tom Wolfe—superstar of the New Journalism movement—recalled Felker’s magnetism, “he had cast his own spell over [New York Magazine’s] writers and editors…we were all breathing Clay’s own mental atmosphere of boundless ambition, his conviction that we were involved in the greatest experiment in the history of journalism.”

I like to think Felker’s spell never faded here on campus.

During his final year at Duke, Russ Freyman, Trinity ‘96, interviewed Felker. The article he produced, entitled “The Magazine Man,” begins with some candid thoughts on the professional implications of a good first impression. He wrote, “It's rather intimidating to walk into the home of a man who, with one little phone call, could find you the ideal job. The kind of job that you'd break the law to get.”

Perhaps Freyman had read about Felker’s simple recruiting pitch to promising young writers: “I’ll make you a star.” The New York editor did just that many times over, and we—or at least I—can’t help but associate Felker with the grandeur of names like Gloria Steinem and Jimmy Breslin.

Chelsea Allison, editor of The Chronicle’s 104th volume, wrote,“More than half a century [after Felker’s time as Editor], our staff is still faithful to [his] standards.”

It’s strange to think that someone we talk about in such grand terms was once a regular Duke student; hard to imagine how “the greatest idea man that ever existed” might have gone about cramming for a final or slipping into class late.

What is plain, glancing over Rubenstein’s carefully labeled folders full of snippets from Felker’s career, is a lasting dedication to supporting unique voices. I think of a sentence from one of Felker’s Chronicle columns. It reads, “Have cardigan coat, do bird calls, imitations of Jimmy Cagney and will travel.” I think you’d have trouble pointing to any place where Felker sacrificed his voice in the name of convention. Felker’s affinity for editing at Duke and beyond was indicative of a knack for collaboration and a willingness to support his chosen writers. Not only did he help launch Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine, he funded the first stand-alone issue. So as aspiring editors and writers at Duke try to live up to that daunting legacy, I say what better place to find unique voices than on campus—which thankfully looks a whole lot more diverse than it did in 1951—and what better way to express those voices than through printed discourse.

In 1961, Felker published his book “Casey Stengel’s Secret” about the titular baseball legend. The Philadelphia Inquirer summarized it as “the story of a chronic loser who became the winningest manager.” I wonder if Felker didn’t in some ways identify with Stengel—seems they were both born to collaborate and guide. Felker once said he didn’t enjoy writing, but that didn’t stop him from becoming one hell of a “manager” or serving his writers as a sage.

Jake Parker is a Trinity sophomore. His column, “thinking too much, feeling too little,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.