An Unlikely Inheritance
When Sean was 5, Karen filed for a restraining order against Jack and moved in with her mother. She was certain "he'd kill me or I'd eventually kill him" if the relationship went on any longer. Karen filed for child support, requesting a minimum $280 a month. Visitation rights were also established and, with them, Jack's legal paternity, as visitation rights are accorded only to a legal parent, either biological or by court-approved adoption. During the proceedings, Jack acknowledged that he was Sean's father; Brian would eventually track down the documents, all of which indicated that—in the eyes of California law, at least—Sean was Jack's son. And yet anytime during the relationship that Karen tried to talk to Jack about their son's inheritance, she says he brushed the matter aside. "He'd say, 'We're not married; Sean can't get anything. Just let it go.'" Before they split for good, Karen took care to photocopy the Trust affidavit, as well as Jack's will.
Jack visited Sean regularly for another two years; Sean has a dim recollection of their going together to the Van Nuys Airport to watch people fly model planes. And then in 1989, when Sean was almost 8, Jack came by the house and told Karen that he was getting married and moving to Arizona. But Sean was left with a few things to remember him by, including an electric guitar and a train set. "He never physically hurt Sean," Karen says. "They played like kids together. I'd tell Sean when we talked about him, 'Your father loved you.'"
When Sean was 14, Karen finally told him the explosive, long-held secret: that he was a descendant of one of the most powerful, storied families in America. "My mom told me one day we'd go forward and contact the Trust," Sean recalls. "But she didn't know when. She was scared for me"—Marion's vulgar threat no doubt ringing in her ears.
As Karen moved from home to home, she says, "I'd sometimes misplace the documents and then panic. And then they'd turn up. I'd tell myself, 'I'm gonna keep those papers safe until Sean is 18. And then there's nothing they can do to him. He'll be in God's hands then.'"
Or, failing that, Brian Kramer's.
Sean Sessums Means could hardly have imagined the historic reach of the family he'd been born into. In the second half of the 19th century, Washington Duke, who was unsympathetic to the cause, was nonetheless conscripted into the Confederate Army. After the Civil War, he returned home to build a tobacco business in North Carolina. Soon the company was hand-rolling cigarettes for sale throughout the North and the South. In 1885 his son James B. Duke had the vision to license an automated cigarette rolling machine that helped turn the family business into one of the first worldwide monopolies. With profits from the American Tobacco Company and its mass-produced cigarettes, James B. Duke and his brother Benjamin invested in hydroelectric plants along the Catawba River in the Carolinas. Their power company grew into Duke Energy, today a major conglomerate with global impact.
On December 11, 1924, ten months before his death, James B. Duke created the Doris Duke Trust, named for his only child, 12-year-old Doris. The Trust stipulated that she would receive two-thirds of its earnings, while the remaining third would be divided equally in yearly payments to the lineal descendants of the brothers and sister of James B. Duke.
On the same day that James B. Duke established the Doris Duke Trust, he also set up the Duke Endowment with $40 million, placing him among America's great philanthropists. One of the endowment's first grants went to Trinity College in Durham, North Carolina, which was promptly renamed Duke University. James B. Duke's original endowment has now swelled to more than $2 billion. (The Trust, which is private, will not disclose the current value of its assets.) In its first 85 years in operation, the endowment has awarded $2.6 billion to religious, healthcare, childcare, and educational organizations, including the historically African-American Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The more Brian Kramer learned about the philanthropy of James B. Duke, and Sean's place in the Duke family tree, the more determined he became to pursue Sean's cause. Wouldn't this beacon of philanthropy want to do the right thing? Still, the idea of taking on the family gave him pause. "They had the vast Duke legal machine behind them," Brian observes. "Sean just had me."