Katherine Williams drew in a deep breath and exhaled following a morning salute to graduating seniors at Craigmont High School. One of the graduates – her son, Christen Walker Dukes – weighed only two pounds at birth, was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, and wasn't expected to live.
The grim report that Williams had received from the doctors at Methodist University Hospital 18 years ago was superseded by her son's dogged determination to survive and overcome the malady that threatened his life.
"He was a preemie at birth and underdeveloped," said Williams, who birthed her son after a 24-week gestation period. "He was born on a Thursday, around 3 p.m., and the doctors said he wouldn't live throughout the night."
Dukes was hospitalized for three months before he was allowed to go home. He had defied the doctors' prognosis, but there would be a revolving door to and from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, where he would go periodically for routine checkups. Along the way, he would summon the wherewithal to succeed at most endeavors and do it so well that admirers would heap accolades upon him.
His mother is his biggest admirer.
"He has been an honor student from the first-grade through the 12th grade," said Williams, basking in the light of her son's achievements, both medically and academically. "The doctors said he wouldn't make it, but he's accomplished a lot.
"He'll be wearing several ribbons and medallions around his neck at graduation."
On Saturday, May 17th at the Memphis Cook Convention Center, 178 graduating seniors bid farewell to their alma mater and looked toward the future. As he had done at the salute to seniors two days earlier, Alvin Wright, Dukes' pre-calculus and honors teacher, made a special presentation that surprised Dukes. Wright spoke fondly of his student and presented him with the "Beat the Odds" award at the graduation.
"I was shocked and surprised. I wasn't expecting it," said Dukes, who graciously accepted the plaque as a memento for the years he's struggled to survive.
With Dukes by his side on the commencement stage with school officials and political leaders, Wright implored the senior class to point in Dukes' direction and say, "Christen, don't give up!"
"At times I thought my situation would stop me from certain things," said Dukes, who rides the wave of good and bad days. "But the fact that I have faith in God, I'm inspired and motivated to do the things I do."
Dukes, a musician with impeccable skills, plays the trombone and baritone horn – a talent his mother said budded when Dukes was around 8 years old. He took music in the 5th grade, played in the band in middle school, and then performed in the marching band in high school. He plays jazz, rhythm and blues, and fusion.
"Music is my passion. It speaks to me and gets me through the day," said Dukes. "It comes from the inside, but whoever listens to it, it can speak to them as well."
The Dukes vita...
The wellspring that Dukes draws inspiration from comes from the jazz music of Grammy-winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum, the former Stax Music Academy's artist in residence and current president and CEO of the Soulsville Foundation.
Dukes has studied at Stax Music Academy for five years after auditioning in the 8th-grade and receiving a scholarship. His tenure is over at the end of June and then he's off to Bethel University in McKenzie, Tenn., where he will join the Renaissance band and continue to study music.
"I've learned a lot over the past five years," said Dukes, who aspires to be one of the greatest trombone players of his time. "I learned to stay humble, always put God first in whatever I do, and believe He will work everything out. I also learned a whole lot of music knowledge."
Dukes' academic success and his prowess as a musician have catapulted him farther than he'd ever expected. His vita is replete with accomplishments – artistic pursuits, social activism and community service – that would rival a seasoned professional.
Last year, in December, Dukes was invited to attend Nobel Week for a three-day awards ceremony at Stockholm University in Stockholm, Sweden, on behalf of the National Society of High School Scholars, which recognizes academic excellence.
He also spent five weeks in the summer of 2013 as an intern at Berkley College of Music in Boston, Mass., on behalf of Stax Music Academy. In 2012, he performed at the WattStax Music Festival with his peers from Stax Music Academy for the festival's 40th anniversary.
Citations, awards and honors abound. He was a recipient of the Jefferson Awards Students In Action for public service, selected for the People to People Ambassador Programs for academic excellence, and has been a member of the National Honor Society since middle school.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr. and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen all have cited Dukes for his commitment to St. Jude, where he serves on the teen advisory board, volunteers for St. Jude, and produces an annual concert to benefit the children. He also advocates for The Sickle Cell Foundation of Tennessee.
When Dukes is off to college, he'll be missed by his mother, who hopes he will continue to excel academically and improve his musicianship.
"I always told him to follow his dreams, be committed to what he's doing, know that there are no limitations, keep God first, and know that he can do anything that he wants to do in life," said Williams.
"My mom is my rock," said Dukes. "I wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for her help and strength. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing."
It got hard sometimes, he said.
"But my mom stayed strong for me to help me get through my medical problems. She stayed positive."