When the tornado siren went off about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Leanna Miller knew exactly what it meant.
Josh Duncan had died.
For years she’d watched out her office window at the Garrard County Courthouse for Duncan, 41, to come walking around the corner after finishing his lunch. But in recent weeks, he’d been too sick to make his routine circuit around the town square.
Whenever he could, Duncan was the one to test the tornado siren on the first Saturday and the third Wednesday of every month. When the siren rang out this week, the fifth Wednesday of the month, Miller — and many others, she said — knew it had to be about him.
Duncan had cancer and had been very sick since late October. Given his passion for weather and public safety, town officials thought it was only fitting to set off the siren for him.
Lancaster is home to about 4,000 people, and just about everybody knows about Duncan.
He had a developmental disability, but he never let that slow him down. He made daily stops at almost every establishment in the town square, changing calendars, checking exit signs and logging fire extinguisher expiration dates as he went.
“Josh just was a unique person,” said John Smith, owner of Smith’s Restaurant. “Everybody loved him in town, and he made his rounds every day, you know, he come by and seen everybody, talked to everybody.”
He made people feel special, because he remembered everything about you. And most of us are so busy that we don’t take the time to get to know people.
Jeanne Carrier, who went to church with Duncan
He started most days with breakfast at Smith’s or at Grate Day’s Grille and Café. He would then check on everyone at the Garrard County Public Library, Whitaker Bank and First Southern National Bank before going to the office set up for him at the courthouse.
Once settled in at his desk under the stairs, Duncan would pull his laptop from his briefcase, which he carried everywhere, and search online for weather updates and information on exit signs, or shop around for new nylon pants.
Duncan was deeply concerned with people’s safety. He liked to know that everyone had an emergency plan and that they had the appropriate equipment to keep them safe.
“He would always say, ‘How come you didn’t put green exit signs in? That way we could see them better if there was a fire,’” said Lynne Day, pointing out a red exit sign at her business, Grate Day’s Grille and Café, which sits on the town square.
Whenever he’d see Lancaster Fire Chief Richard Sebastian, Duncan would ask for a copy of the latest fire-prevention bulletin. He was distressed that people weren’t regularly checking their smoke detectors, Sebastian said.
“If a house caught on fire, he’d ask me if the smoke detector was working,” firefighter Donnie Barnes said.
On severe-weather days, Duncan would set out, weather band radio in hand, to make sure everyone was prepared for the coming storms. If a bulb was out in an exit sign, he made sure the responsible parties were well aware.
He had an obsession with exit signs. He loved to be prepared.
Arnie Akers, community president at First Southern National Bank
Whenever he attended a visitation or a funeral at Ramsey-Young Funeral Home, Duncan would remind owner Shane Young that the exit sign was out in his office. The day Duncan died, Young fixed that sign and set it on the front porch for the night. Several people stopped and took pictures of the illuminated sign.
“He had an obsession with exit signs. He loved to be prepared,” said Arnie Akers, community president at First Southern National Bank. “He was sort of in charge of ringing the bell when there was an emergency in town, so that was always on his mind.”
Duncan even collected exit signs. His sister, Page Smith, found at least seven at his home, but the family recently learned that his collection was more extensive.
“We have come to find out that he has left stuff at every place he’s ever visited,” Smith said. “He would just stash them and go back and get them, so we don’t even know how many.”
Two exit signs that he’d squirreled away at the courthouse have since been set out in his memory. One of them has been propped up beside a trash can from his office on which he’d written his name in black marker.
Duncan’s sisters and his parents, Roger and Lois Duncan, have been overwhelmed by the community response, Smith said. Social media has been full of stories about Duncan, and many Garrard County residents have changed their Facebook profile pictures to an image of an exit sign.
Several people said that before Duncan got sick, they hadn’t realized how often he’d reminded them of important tasks. After a stay at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital that lasted through much of November, Duncan returned to his parents’ home in Lancaster for hospice care.
Leanna Miller, an office clerk with the sheriff’s office, visited Duncan on a day in November when a tornado siren test had been scheduled. He brought it to her attention that the siren hadn’t gone off.
“He remembered and he kept everyone on their toes,” Miller said. “I called dispatch and said, ‘Girls, you all have been scolded. Josh is on sick leave and the whole town is falling apart; everybody’s forgetting what they’re doing.’”
From a desk that sits under the stairs in the county courthouse to a sign that will soon hang above his table at Grate Day’s Grille and Café, Duncan will continue to have a presence in Lancaster.
“He made people feel special, because he remembered everything about you,” said Jeanne Carrier, who went to church with Duncan. “If you told him something, he’d never forget it. And most of us are so busy that we don’t take the time to get to know people, take the time to ask people how they’re doing.”
Laura McWilliams, director of the Garrard County Public Library, said Duncan’s legacy will be his kindness.
“I hope it will just remind us to be a little nicer to each other, to treat everybody like Josh treated them,” McWilliams said. “He thought good things about people, and I hope that’s what people will take away from this.”
County Clerk Kevin Montgomery said Duncan’s death has been hard on the whole community.
“The courthouse won’t be the same. The city won’t be the same,” Montgomery said. “He touched many hearts, and maybe that’s why the good Lord said ‘Hey, Josh, you’ve touched more than enough hearts. Come home.’”
Services for Josh Duncan
Visitation: 11 a.m. Saturday at Garrard County High School, 599 Industry Road, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at Garrard County Middle School, 304 Maple Avenue. Funeral: 3 p.m. Sunday at Garrard County Middle School.