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Convinced he now had a spiritual gift to hone and perfect, Duke began working by healing ailments in people he knew, eventually aligning himself with the Universal Church of the Master, which ordained him as a minister on Easter Sunday 1970.
"I don't want the title, don't need the title," he says outside his home in west Fort Lauderdale one cool evening in late February. "But at least it was before diploma mills. You can't get what you want by paying for it."
This is the home, flanked by huge old pine trees, that he bought for $12,000 in 1974. He started holding gatherings once a week back at the airport, but his marriage was quickly crumbling. One of his girls was born retarded, one autistic, and his wife's mother put pressure on them to institutionalize the twins. His wife began to concur. "And so eventually, it separated us," Duke says sadly.
The house that now holds his Sunday-night sessions was built in 1940, part of a forgotten Fort Lauderdale tract just west of I-95 and the Tri-Rail tracks. By 1977, he'd incorporated his little enterprise as the Haven for Spiritual Travelers, a refuge for locals interesting in readings, channelings, healings, UFO discussions, and spiritual counseling.
Just inside the front door, in the cluttered foyer, is a large photograph dated April 18, 2000. It shows Duke administering a healing laying-of-hands upon a young man. Some effect has been captured that looks as if some amorphous substance from Duke's hands has traveled upward to the man's throat. (A photography expert explains that something as simple as slow shutter speed could account for the appearance on the negative.)
A caption reads: "Red Duke channeling spiritual energy. This picture was taken with an ordinary camera flash with no additional lighting, during Full Moon Meditation at Red's Medicine Wheel in his backyard." The strange material, Duke contends, is ectoplasm.
The ectoplasm he and Harry Oster saw that day at the Fort Lauderdale airport was the byproduct of the healing of Oster's esophageal hernia, Duke says. By the time Duke began his Sunday-night workshops at the Haven, he'd transformed into a self-styled psychic guru.
"If you can picture a kid going along with training wheels on his tricycle and then all of a sudden you're on a big Harley hog getting onto the turnpike at 90 mph, that's how big the change was," he says today. "I learned everything."
Duke has seen some shrinkage in his own congregation in the past decade due to the rise in reiki, a Japanese energy-healing technique that offers a formalized, ritualized Zen quality that may have appealed to those unaccustomed to the funkiness of the Haven. Swank centers like Fort Lauderdale's Oasis Reiki Institute make Duke's gatherings look unpolished.
The Haven, with its front porch cluttered with crawling vines and unkempt plants, is dark and warm by day. Open windows let a breeze scatter dog hair across the worn wood floors. At night, the lights in the Florida room -- sharing space with a loose, dwindling collection of ceiling tiles -- are notoriously temperamental.
While Duke was turning the two-bedroom bungalow into a welcoming refuge suitable for gatherings of 30 or more, he held his initial Haven gatherings every Sunday night in a room he rented at the Fort Lauderdale Women's Club, downtown at Broward Boulevard and Andrews Avenue. In the 1980s, when economics laid waste the city's core, the intersection wasn't stockings and Starbucks -- it was skid row.
"There was always a lot of crime down there," Duke scowls. "The bums and the hangers-on ruined it for us. People would come down and sit on people's cars, ask for money, or insult the ladies."
So after some sprucing up, the Haven was permanently moved back to Duke's stucco-and-tile-roof abode. The rest of the decade, he reports, he had the biggest, most consistent "congregation" of sorts. On Sunday nights, folks would park their cars at the fruit-and-vegetable stand on the corner and walk, singing and holding hands, down the street.
"They don't do that anymore," he acknowledges glumly.
In 1988, Sun-Sentinel columnist Gary Stein interviewed Duke about potential vice-presidential picks, and Duke stated, "I have a strong feeling for Quayle." When the prediction later came true, Stein wrote, "I'm starting to wonder if Duke knows anything about lottery numbers."
Duke has a book full of cards and letters -- testimonials from those who visited and have experienced healing or revelation. There's a collection of recent e-mails and handwritten notes dating back to the '80s, thanking Duke repeatedly for "healing," "understanding," "helping," "love," and "light."
In 1999, a St. Augustine man, Thomas A. Taylor, says he witnessed three incidents in which Duke actually performed healings. "Red is not only an excellent healer, he is an excellent psychic," he claimed in a written and notarized testimonial dated September 24, 2002.
Today, Taylor adds, "Red's got a tremendous gift, and he's helped a lot of people. I have been there to witness it, and I'm incredibly careful about who I endorse, because I'm a psychic and medium as well. Red has my backing 150 percent."
Now that area property values are up and trouble is down, Sunday nights at Duke's house continue modestly. Tonight, a dozen people make the Florida room feel crowded. The group usually represents a decent cross-strata of black/white, straight/gay, male/female, young/old.