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ComEd, Illinois state economic exec, dead at 81, was a grandson of Ida B. Wells

Donald L. Duster obit photo.  Mr. Duster was state economic development leader ComEd executive grandslegendary anti-lynching campaigner IdB. Wells.

Donald L. Duster obit photo. Mr. Duster was a state economic development leader, a ComEd executive and grandson of legendary anti-lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells.

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Updated: May 12, 2013 1:51PM

Donald L. Duster was a grandson of the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, but, growing up, he was taught you don’t get ahead by using family connections.

You do it with hard work and education, according to his mother, Alfreda, Wells’ youngest child.

Mr. Duster and his four siblings “would come home from school right away, and they had chores to do right away,” said his daughter, Michelle Duster.

Young Donald’s job was to keep the stove stoked.

“There were always ashes to take out, wood to chop and coal to bring in to keep the fire going,” said his brother, Troy Duster.

After chores, “They would eat and clear off the table, and they would all do their homework together,” Michelle Duster said.

Every year, the Dusters painted their home at 3239 S. Prairie. Even the little kids grabbed a brush. “They didn’t have a lot of money,” said Mr. Duster’s daughter. “But they definitely had pride.”

Mr. Duster and his brothers and sister all grew up to be either first or second-ran in their high school class. He went on to study math at the University of Illinois, earn an MBA from DePaul University and work as a financial analyst for Commonwealth Edison. Gov. James Thompson brought him to the state’s Department of Business and Economic Development, which he led from 1977 to 1979.

Mr. Duster died March 11 in Chicago at his Calumet Heights home. He was 81.

“He was really smart, a hard worker and a great person,” the former governor said.

Mr. Duster traveled the state, meeting with business leaders and chambers of commerce. He went on overseas trips to try and lure business to Illinois.

“You knew when you sent Donald to one of these meetings, you were going to get a professional, polished, valuable appearance,” Thompson said.

The Dusters knew the legacy of their grandmother. Born a slave, Wells became a pioneering journalist and suffragist and was one of the founders of the NAACP. And though Alfreda Duster published her mother’s story in the book

Crusade for Justice, she believed her children needed to pursue their own talents and identities.

Donald Duster had a passion for photography but found himself drawn to the order of math. “He was very interested in structures of organizations and managing budgets,” Michelle Duster said.

In the mid-1950s, Mr. Duster landed a job at Spiegel. The catalog giant was known for welcoming African Americans at a time when many corporate doors were not only closed to them but nailed shut.

In 1962, he joined ComEd, where he worked in financial analysis and management. After a two-year leave of absence to work in Thompson’s state cabinet, he returned to ComEd until 1987. Next, he became assistant executive director of Chicago Commons, a community non-profit agency.

Mr. Duster knew what it was like to be a man of color in a landscape of white professionals. From 1953 to 1954. he had served in Texas and Arizona as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

“Even in his Army uniform, [when] he was with his compadres, they could go in the front door of a restaurant, and he was not welcome,” his daughter said. “He was asked to sit in the back of the bus, even though he had on his uniform.”

Later in life, he took on roles that helped contribute to the non-violent dismantling of apartheid, Troy Duster said, traveling to South Africa as a member of the United States-South Africa Leader Exchange Program in the 1970s. He met with members of the white power structure and with leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in black townships.

“He got to be exposed to everything — including the fear that a lot of black South Africans felt,” Michelle Duster said. “He had dinner at somebody’s house, and there were something like eight people there, and the host said, ‘One of the people in this room is a spy, and anything said in this room will be reported to the authorities — and we don’t know which one it is.’ ”

A minimalist, Mr. Duster traveled the globe carrying only a small suitcase. “You can make a lot of combinations out of three pairs of pants, four shirts and two blazers and six ties,” Michelle Duster said.

He ate the same soup-and-salad combo for lunch every day when he worked for ComEd. He was a member of the same book club for 25 years. Mr. Duster had not one but two black Toyota Avalons. “He drove [the first one] for 20 years, and when that conked out, he got another one,” his daughter said.

After the Chicago Housing Authority’s Ida B. Wells homes were torn down, Mr. Duster worked to support a planned monument in Wells’ honor at 37th and Langley, near her home at 3624 S. King Dr., a national historic landmark. Mr. Duster and his family were active with the Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation, and he presented scholarships to students at Wells’ alma mater, Rust College of Holly Springs, Miss.

On April 13, his family plans to hold a “tribute service” at 1 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 6400 S. Kimbark. Mr. Duster donated his body to science.

He is also survived by his wife of 50 years, Maxine; sons David and Daniel, and a sister, Alfreda Ferrell.

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