Who are Duke's most famous fictional alumni?

Sam Seaborn is arguably the most famous fictional Duke alumnus, graduating from Duke Law School before working under President Bartlet.
Sam Seaborn is arguably the most famous fictional Duke alumnus, graduating from Duke Law School before working under President Bartlet.

Duke’s alumni network is far-reaching, with hundreds of thousands of alumni in over 160 different countries. That network even extends to the fictional world, with characters in a variety of TV shows, as well as books, claiming Duke affiliations.

Probably one of the best known is Sam Seaborn, portrayed by Rob Lowe on “The West Wing.” The show originally aired from 1999 to 2006 and chronicles the inner workings of President Jed Bartlet’s White House administration. On the show, Seaborn graduated from Duke University School of Law. He was the editor of what the show calls the Duke Law Review, which doesn’t exist in reality. The school’s main student-run journal is actually called the Duke Law Journal and was first established as the Duke Bar Journal in 1951. There’s a real-life connection between Lowe and Duke as well — his son, Matthew Lowe, graduated from Duke in 2016.

Another fictional Duke Law graduate is Sarah “Mac” MacKenzie, played by Catherine Bell on the TV show “JAG,” which aired from 1995 to 2005. JAG stands for Judge Advocate General, referring to the chief attorney within a military branch that deals with military justice and law. Other than the chief attorney, the officers in the branch are called Judge Advocates. MacKenzie went to Duke on a sponsorship from the Marine Corps and is one of the show’s Judge Advocates. She holds the rank of Major at the beginning of the show and is promoted to Lieutenant Colonel between season four and season five.

Continuing the trend of Duke graduate school alumni on television is Sloan Sabbith, portrayed by Olivia Munn on “The Newsroom.” The show, also created by “The West Wing”’s Aaron Sorkin, premiered in 2012 and continued through 2014. It follows the lives of the newsroom staff of “News Night,” a nightly news show at the fictional Atlantis Cable News. Sabbith has two Ph.D.s, one of which is in economics from Duke. Accordingly, she presents the economic news segment on “News Night.”

As for undergraduates, Stingo, the narrator in the 1979 novel “Sophie’s Choice,” went to Duke. The book was written by a Duke graduate, William Styron, Trinity ‘47. Set in post-World War II Brooklyn, “Sophie’s Choice” follows Sophie and Nathan, survivors of the Holocaust. Stingo is a young writer who lives downstairs from the two and narrates their lives through the novel. The narrator shares some characteristics with the author. For instance, Stingo specifically states that he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, an honor Styron also achieved. The name Stingo also comes from Styron’s nickname when he was an undergraduate student at Duke. 

On the TV series “ER,” Mark Greene’s daughter, Rachel Greene, went to Duke for her undergraduate degree with an intent to go to medical school. Rachel Greene was played by two different actresses, first Yvonne Zima from 1994 to 2000 and then Hallee Hirsh from 2001 to 2009. Rachel’s stepmother, Elizabeth Corday, is also the chief of trauma surgery at Duke.

Tom Clancy’s 1996 novel “Executive Orders” features a Duke undergraduate alumnus, Aref “Jeff” Raman. In the book, Raman is a Secret Service agent who also happens to be a huge college basketball fan. He claims to have gone to Duke and studied pre-law; however, there actually is no defined set of pre-law courses at Duke. Raman graduated Duke summa cum laude, was a varsity wrestler and had straight A’s.

Other fictional characters aspired to attend Duke or had the opportunity to do so, but did not actually go during the course of the show. For instance, Nathan Scott, portrayed by James Lafferty on “One Tree Hill,” gets a basketball scholarship to Duke. Scott has played basketball for his entire life and even attended a prestigious basketball camp before his senior year. However, he loses his scholarship after people find out that he had been point-shaving, a form of throwing the game not by losing but by limiting the point spread. He later plays instead for the University of Maryland.

Many characters lay claim to Duke as their alma mater, across mediums, genres and decades. They add real-life elements of Duke’s culture to fictional shows, from the semi-obsession with college basketball to the nature of many students to strive for high academic and extracurricular achievements. But only a few of them get all of the details right.

Correction: The article has been updated to reflect that Phi Beta Kappa is an academic honor, not a fraternity. The Chronicle regrets the error. 


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