There's something about Ofield.Maybe it's the way he speaks - slowly and deliberately, in measured tones, careful to pronounce every consonant as if he's perpetually on stage.
Given to fits of grandiosity, he refers to his career in PR as a journey "from the long dark shadows in the valley and through the racial barriers to the mountaintop
- not from behind a podium, but over lunch.
Or maybe it's how he presents himself. Neat and tailored, with rimless glasses, a finely trimmed mustache, and a closely cropped head of hair receding just enough to be distinguished. He keeps his hands folded and leans in closely when he speaks, but he's slow to laugh, and even slower to crack a joke.
Perhaps it's the combined weight of his reputation and his resume. After 33 years in the business, he is one of PR's most respected and oft-rewarded figures. The PRSA gave him its highest honor last year, the Golden Anvil, and earlier this year he was honored by the Black Public Relations Society (BPRS), whose Washington, DC chapter he founded in 1993.
The man has the ability to rouse strong emotions among his peers. Words like "living legend
are thrown about as frequently as "stubborn
or "not unkind."
"He has a funny way of doing things,
says one woman who's worked with him on several projects. Some prefer simply to smile respectfully and refer to him as "old school."
But if someone ever writes a play about PR's history, one would hope the author includes Dukes, as he is one of the greatest characters in an industry riddled with them. The sheer number of PR people he knows is mind-boggling, and the number that know of him exceeds even that. Some he inspires, others he drives to madness. He brings people together as frequently as he alienates them. He is, from a writer's perspective, too ready-made a subject, too full of tantalizing contradictions and quirky attributes, to be true.
"My goal is to be judged on my ability and on my excellence in achieving certain kinds of services,
When asked if he thinks he's achieved that, he matter-of-factly responds, "Oh yes."
Dukes needs no encouragement to recount all his achievements - and the list is as long as it is impressive. Names like Stevie Wonder, Coretta Scott King, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Alex Halley, and Dr. Leon Sullivan pepper his client list. He served in Lyndon B. Johnson's administration and subsequently advised Hubert Humphrey - as he has every Democratic presidential candidate since. He spent the first days of March 2002 in South Africa trying to bring the entire global PR community together within a single association, The Global Alliance of PR.
Yet he claims never to work past 6pm, and says he has every phone call of the day penciled into his agenda by 7:30am. "Nothing interferes with my peace of mind,
he earnestly states.
That kind of self-confidence is as legendary as his achievements.
"He's extremely persuasive, and there may be some who perceive that as trying to take over a project, or they take his comments as being a my-way-is-the-only-way kind of thing,
says Lon Walls, owner of Walls Communications, a Georgetown-based mid-size shop. "If you're not secure, you can take that the wrong way."
Or as Dukes explains it, "Aristotle said, 'Be thyself,' and Shakespeare said, 'To thine own self be true.' People may have problems with other folks if they don't have a keen knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of self."
"We have a lot to thank him for,
says Walls, "I look at him as being the godfather of PR for blacks in Washington, DC, and the whole East Coast. He's done an awful lot over a span of time."
His 33-year-old firm, Ofield Dukes & Associates, now operates with a two-person staff out of Dukes' townhouse in southwest DC. He describes his work these days as more PR consultant than day-to-day media man. Current clients include the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a handful of undisclosed "corporate
"I am now paid for my advice,
he says, and his conversation reflects that. He offers well thought-out and nuanced opinions on everything from modern-day reporters (smarter and more dedicated than their predecessors) to the Bush Administration (the best he's ever seen at controlling the media), and those opinions carry the weight of his experience.
As for his opinion of the industry in which he has spent his life, he is happy to say he's never seen it in better shape. "PR people were 'flacks,'
he remembers from his early industry days. "Journalists didn't want anything to do with the profession. Now we have people at the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, spoon-feeding the news to the media.
His pride at this is obvious. And as one of the first people to go from government work to the PR world, he can take much of the credit - and does. You can read about it all when he finishes his current project, a memoir, which he hopes will "be a source of inspiration for young people, black and white."
As if his life wasn't that already.