He Was Always Bigger Than the West, and Now America's Cowboy John Wayne Captures Brooklyn

updated 11/15/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/15/1982 01:00AM

The late John Wayne once squinted at a report card his son Michael had brought home from school, jabbed a massive finger at a "C" and roared "What is that?" "A 'C means average," ventured Michael. "No child of mine is gonna be average," growled the Duke.

That's one reason why six of Wayne's children—Michael, 47, Patrick, 43, Ethan, 20, Marisa, 16, and married daughters Toni La Cava, 45, and Melinda Munoz, 41, showed up for the dedication of the first school named after their father, the John Wayne Elementary School in Brooklyn. (Missing was daughter Aissa Kuhle, 26, the wife of a tennis pro, who had just given birth and could not attend.) "Dad always believed in education," said Michael. Why Brooklyn? Because, explained community superintendent William A. Rogers, who lobbied for the designation, "America is the greatest country in the world, and what is personified by John Wayne is liberty for all."

The mere location of the red-brick schoolhouse seemed to testify to Wayne's wide appeal: The neighborhood is mostly Hasidic, and most of the students Hispanic. Hundreds of officials, students and fans jammed the small auditorium where John Wayne himself—from a record album he'd made, America, Why I Love Her—led the throng in pledging allegiance to the flag. More than one tear was wiped away at the sound of the Duke's voice.

An afternoon of tributes followed, including a telegram from President Reagan ("Despite his sense of modesty, Duke would have enjoyed this day") and remembrances from such celebrity attendees as Alan King, Claire Trevor and Colleen Dewhurst. The Wayne kids presented a bronze bust of the Duke to the school and John Wayne Medals of Freedom to all the students.

Mobbed for autographs, Wayne's progeny were clearly a hit with the student body, which had obviously been briefed about just who John Wayne was. Jose Ruiz, 10, said, "He was a great man." Added a classmate: "My name is Russell. John Wayne was a great actor, and he never stole nothing."

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