Youngest branch president is now oldest, 49 years later

Luciano Duarte, 76, president of the Laredo 3rd Branch, has served continuously in a branch presidency or bishopric for nearly half a century.

"At one time I was the youngest branch president in the mission," he reflected. "Right now I am the oldest. After nearly 50 years, being a branch president should be easier." He paused. "And I think it is."He was first called as Laredo Branch president in May 1949 after serving three years in the infantry during World War II. Soon after he was married, he was called as branch president. "I have been branch president ever since," he jested.

He is quick to point out that he is exaggerating - slightly. All in all, he's served as branch president for 22 years and bishop for five years. He's served as a bishop's or branch president's first counselor for 22 years, all continuously.

He served as president of the Laredo Branch from 1949 to 1966, when he was set apart as president of the Laredo 2nd Branch. When a stake was created in Laredo in 1967, he was called as the bishop's first counselor in the Laredo Ward, where he served for 13 years. He was set apart as bishop of the Laredo Ward June 8, 1980. He served five years as bishop, then was called again as counselor, where he served for nine more years until 1994, when the stake was discontinued. Several smaller branches were created and made part of the Texas McAllen Mission, and he found himself back in his familiar calling as branch president, this time of the Laredo 3rd Branch, the smallest in the district, where he has served ever since.

He's rejoiced when babies were born, helped children grow up in the gospel, sent them on missions, prepared them for and attended their temple marriages, stood in when their babies were blessed, and presided at many funerals. He's also seen many families move away.

"I've done a lot of interviews," he said.

He is grateful for the opportunity, he continued. "Knowing that I have the priesthood is very rewarding. I have a testimony that this is the true Church and that is also very rewarding."

He said that being a branch president has challenges, but he relies on faith to guide him to make the right choices.

"I feel the Lord asked me to work, so I am working at whatever He wants me to do. I feel there is no problem the Lord can't solve, so whenever I have a problem, I talk with Him, and I know that He whispers to me and that He answers, so I trust in Him."

As a youngster, he learned to prepare. "My mother taught me when I was young. We had to give 2 1/2 minute talks, way back. I didn't want to go to Church because I was shy. She said that `the only way you are going to learn is to prepare yourself little by little, and you will be all right.' "

His mother's influence in his life has been profound. It was his mother, Julia Cervantes Duarte, who, in the late 1920s, first invited missionaries into the Duarte home.

She had been praying to find the true Church and one day, soon after she had prayed, missionaries knocked on her door.

"My mother said, `Come in, I have been waiting for you.' "

She and her husband, Pedro, were soon baptized. Young Luciano, who was 6 at the time, was baptized two years later.

He remembered that the branch then had about 25 members. "Pres. Rey L. Pratt was president of this whole area," said Brother Duarte. "He was a very spiritual man and had a lot of drive."

After attending services faithfully with his parents during his growing-up years, he was drafted by the Army in 1942. As a draftee, he served in the 84th Infantry and was involved in some of the bloodiest battles in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge.

It was his responsibility to recover the bodies of the dead after a battle. "They sent me and three other guys to get the bodies. We were shot at by rifles and machine guns. The first time we went into battle, we had 200 in our company, and only 80 survived the first battle.

"I was very trusting in the Lord. I always prayed; I was fortunate to be alive. I didn't get scratched at all in the war. One day when we were walking for many miles, and a lot of guys were getting sick and tired, I remembered the promise in the Word of Wisdom to `walk and not faint.' After that, I walked for a long time."

He recalled that another time, when stationed in London, England, he went to a subway one Sunday hoping to locate Church services. The subway was crowded with soldiers. In the mass of people, an older woman approached and asked if he was going to Church. When he nodded, she beckoned him to follow.

"I didn't ask her what church, I just went with her on the subway," he said. "When we got off the subway and entered a building, she turned to me and said, `I am going to Relief Society. You go to priesthood meeting.' I have never been able to answer how she found me."

Pres. Duarte has left a legacy in the Church and in three other areas. He was recently inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame for his contributions as a disc jockey for more than 35 years of promoting the bass guitar and accordion style of "Onda Chicana" Spanish language music. A Laredo newspaper referred to him as "a local legend" on the air waves.

At age 50, he graduated from the University of Laredo with a bachelor's degree in bilingual education, and taught elementary school for the next 21 years. He is well-respected for teaching English as a Second Language among a population that is 95 percent Spanish-speaking.

Lastly, he and his brother and a friend also have a singing group that is well-known for its many local and regional performances.

After the war, Brother Duarte, who was given the Bronze Star for his service, started a band. His band was invited to perform on the radio, and "I got the idea that I wanted to be a radio announcer," he said. He was given an opportunity to announce, and he continued in the occupation for nearly four decades. He became well-known in the Hispanic community, where "the missionaries mentioned my name a lot," he said.

Now retired from the radio and school teaching, he continues with his music and also writes novelettes, or soap box operas, that are used on Latin television.

Even after all these years, his biggest challenge remains finding time for everything.

"There is always a lot of meetings. I make time for them. Time is always a challenge; you just have to find a way."

Pres. Duarte has been remarkably successful in doing just that.

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