My Giving Story: J.J. Yates

Army veteran hopes to deliver a life-changing Duke education to future students by supporting financial aid

J.J. Yates ’50 has never asked for anything, not even a dime. Despite humble beginnings, he sought to create his own path and future with the hopes to share what he had with others someday.

When Yates was 20 years old, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in World War II and was stationed in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Japan. He rose in the ranks to the level of CW4, a chief warrant officer 4 who serves as a senior-level expert and fourth officer rank in the army. He continued to serve part-time to the army and U.S. Joint Forces Command as an army reserve solider in the U.S. Army Reserve.

After active service, he moved to Durham, NC, in 1946 to return to civilian life. Yates took on a small stint as a cigarette machine operator at Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company. Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, Durham was a formidable tobacco production city in the South. Liggett & Myers was located in the heart of the city and one of the largest production companies in the United States.

“After some time, I decided I wanted to go back to school, and a friend who worked at Duke encouraged me to apply,” said Yates. He was accepted to Duke and officially enrolled in 1946 thanks to the G.I. Bill, an education benefit provided to earned service members and veterans by the U.S. Department of Veterans of Affairs.

“I was shocked to even get in and eager to begin classes,” said Yates. “I remember my orientation class most. I didn’t know what was coming, and I remember feeling excited and nervous.”

He pursued his undergraduate degree in accounting at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. Between classes, he filled his time working at the Duke School of Forestry, now part of the Nicholas School of the Environment, where he earned $0.50 an hour.

Following graduation from Duke in 1950, Yates moved west and began his lifelong career serving as an auditor of Mecklenburg County, NC. Throughout a fulfilling career and life traveling around the world, Yates always fondly recalls his education and time at Duke.

In gratitude for the impact of his Duke education, Yates made a planned gift to honor his alma mater and to give everything he can support to future students.

How did your Duke education influence your career and/or your life?

Duke changed my life. It provided me a real opportunity to better my life and myself. I am so thankful to have been given the chance to attend such a great school.

Duke provides students and alumni like me the foundation to excel, to discover unique talents and skills, and to pursue boundless opportunities.

Why did you choose to create an undergraduate scholarship fund?

I made a bequest to establish the James J. Yates Scholarship Fund, which will provide scholarships for undergraduate students. I wanted to show my appreciation to Duke for receiving such a stellar and life-changing experience. My hope is to empower and elevate Duke students to receive the same exceptional education that I received.

Why do you feel that giving back is important?

Giving back is important to me because Duke gave to me when they let me attend the university. I was born on the wrong side of the tracks, but with determination and my education, I was able to accomplish so many things. My scholarship will help give someone else the same chance I received.

TAGS: Giving and Impact Stories

About the author

Jenna Brown

Jenna joined the Duke University Development Marketing and Communications team in 2014. She manages publicity for University Development gift announcements, and develops marketing and communications strategies for University Development partners, schools, units and initiatives.

Prior to University Development, Jenna worked as a pediatric development communications specialist at Duke Children’s Hospital, and previously in the video streaming technology industry. A Raleigh native, she earned her B.A. in public relations from North Carolina State University and resides in Durham.