But Duke, now a governor on the board of the Federal Reserve and an active player in efforts to heal an economy with millions of Americans out of work, says it was her aspirations as an actress that led her to become a banker.
Duke found a job as a part-time drive-through teller. Later, when the UNC student of dramatic arts needed a full-time job, she went to a start-up bank. Her boss, "an old-fashioned community banker," became her mentor.
And when he died suddenly of a heart attack 15 years later, it was Duke who took charge. She added to her responsibilities the handling of the bank's account at the Federal Reserve. She started studying banking and management and then teaching at the schools where she had learned.
By then, her earlier dream -- "I could have been miserable as a mediocre actress" -- had given way to fascination with how small banks manage their cash and other reserves and interact with the businesses that rely on those lenders, together forming the building blocks of the economy.
Duke said the lessons she learned then are now being employed as she, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and other colleagues on the Fed try to shepherd the American economy through hard times by making available billions of dollars they hope businesses will use to hire new workers and consumers will use to ignite economic growth.
"My early experiences with making reserve decisions for a tiny community bank make it much easier to connect the dots between Federal Reserve actions to add or withdraw reserves" -- which is one way the Fed adjusts interest rates that affect credit cards, home loans, car purchases and so much else -- and how that affects consumers and business leaders, Duke said.
"For me, the process was personal," Duke said. "There were financial statements to be gathered and analyzed. Usually it was difficult, if not impossible, to separate the business and personal finances. But understanding the borrower's ability to successfully run a business was just as important as analyzing the numbers."
"Now, as a bank regulator in the middle of a financial crisis, this deep personal understanding of the lending and loan collection process strongly influences my policy views," Duke added. "And I have never lost sight of the importance of those small businesses to local economies or the importance of loan availability to small businesses."