You never quite knew when Popeye Duren was pulling your leg. He honed his jokester skills over many decades and would go to great lengths to set up a gag.
“One time his brother, Elmer, was bringing some guys down from St. Louis,” daughter Robin Batts said. “His other brother, Virgil, was going squirrel hunting, and Dad told Virgil to leave one at the base of this tree way down the drive.
“The guys show up and they’re talking, and Dad says, ‘Look! A squirrel!’ and fires the gun. They all say, ‘Aw, you didn’t hit it from way up here!’ and he tells them to go down there and look – and sure enough, there’s a dead squirrel under the tree.”
Mr. Duren died July 4, a joker to the last.
“He would prank the nurses with a plastic spider under the blanket,” daughter Rhonda Mitchell said.
Mr. Duren grew up one of 11 children, and learned to hunt, fish and trap at an early age at his grandparents’ farm in Fredericktown.
He acquired his nickname as a toddler.
“When he was little, he used to go around without a shirt, showing off his muscles,” Robin said. “So his sisters started calling him Popeye.”
The family lived in Bonne Terre, then Crystal City, where Mr. Duren worked at the Roxy Theater and had a paper route, and where he met Rosa Cash.
“If you talked to Mom, she'd say there was never anyone else,” son Rob Duren said. “If you talked to Dad, there were other girls here and there. But once he met her, that was it.”
Mr. Duren was preparing to volunteer for the Marines when he was drafted into the Army at the start of the Korean War.
“He was a medic, so he saw some terrible things,” Rob said.
“He never talked seriously about Korea until late in his life,” Rhonda said. “You don't think about PTSD at 89 years old, but he always had nightmares.”
There was a lighter side to his military service, though.
“He and Virgil and Elmer were all at the same military base,” Rhonda said. “Those two didn’t want to get up for reveille, so Dad would go to roll call for them. It was last name only, and he’d go down the line and say ‘Here!’ all three times.”
Back at home, he resumed his courtship. The Durens were married in 1953 and welcomed five children in 10 years (Ralph and Becky are the other two). Mr. Duren went to work at the PPG glass plant, and the couple bought property on Hwy. TT and built a basement, where they lived while building the house above.
Mr. Duren tried to give his children the same kind of childhood he had, instilling self-reliance and a strong work ethic.
“We'd go out the door in the morning and come back in at supper time,” Robin said.
Mr. Duren won many accolades for his trapping skills and conservation efforts. He shared his knowledge as a wildlife enthusiast with countless students at local schools, with church and scouting groups and with the public at festivals and celebrations.
Family vacations were to Missouri Trappers conventions.
“We did go to Mount Rushmore one year,” Robin interjected.
“Only because there was a trappers convention in South Dakota,” Rhonda countered.
His children say Mr. Duren considered nature a healing agent.
“If something happened, he'd take off to the woods and deal with it, and when he came back he was OK,” Rhonda said.
“The only time I ever say him really mad was at my grandpa’s funeral,” Rob said. “We were turning off to go to the cemetery and some guy cut through the funeral line.”
The loving relationship between Mr. Duren and his wife was the bedrock of the family.
“My mom would get aggravated with him, but there was never any yelling or angry words in front of us,” Rhonda said.
“I don't remember a single time when he walked out the door without kissing her, and that was the first thing he did when he came him,” Rob said.
Mrs. Duren died in 2010.
“He missed her, but there was always something happening, a new baby or a graduation or wedding that kept him going,” Rhonda said.
Mr. Duren suffered a heart attack in 2013. He bounced back pretty easily from that episode, but a serious fall in January 2018 took a greater toll on his health.
“He thought he heard somebody banging on the door in the night, and when he went to answer it, he fell and hit his head,” Robin said. “It looked like a crime scene; there was blood all over the house.”
The concussion left lasting damage.
“He was never the same physically,” Rhonda said. “Mentally, though, he was as sharp as ever.”
Mr. Duren left rehabilitation in July 2019 and by fall felt ready to get back into his education programs.
“In September, he had his first setup for Missouri Days,” Rhonda said. “He sat in his wheelchair and told me I could help him. I think he was a little worried, but once he got going, it was just like old times.”
The siblings agree their father would want to be remembered for his military service.
“Although he hated being in Korea, he was proud,” Rob said.
They said his legacy also was his role as an educator, mentor and role model.
“A guy I was working with mentioned he is getting into trapping, and I said my dad does that,” Rhonda said. “He asked his name, and when I said, ‘Robert Duren, but they call him Popeye,’ his eyes got great big and he said, ‘He's a legend!’”
“Life Story,” posted Saturdays on Leader Publications’ website, focuses on one individual’s impact on his or her community.