Donald J. Dunn succumbed to lung cancer on Saturday, January 5, 2008. Don was a great man who achieved greatness in life. No, his obit did not make the New York Times nor the Los Angeles Times. No dams, bridges, skyscrapers, corporations, foundations, prizes have been named for him, but he accomplished great achievements. No portraits, statues, or busts bear his likeness, but they should.
The CV often tells us nothing about the essence of a person. His simple CV shows Don was a law librarian, but not at one of the nation’s great universities. He was twice a dean, but not at an elite law school. His law degree was from a Fourth Tier Law School. A.B. Texas, M.L.S. Texas, J.D. WNEC, Law Librarian WNEC 1973-2004, Acting Dean, 1996-1998 WNEC, Dean, 1998-2002, WNEC, Dean, University of La Verne, 2004-2008.
All he did was enrich under endowed schools and touch people.
From the hard East Texas soil outside Tyler, Texas, this soft-spoken Texas gentlemen accomplished wonders. The single son of a single mom (His father died when he was 4) had a single son, but the love of thousands. In a classic American or Texas dream, the high school football player married the majorette, Cheryl, his life-long companion. This true son of Texas lived over half his life in Massachusetts and California, but remained ever a Texan.
Don joined the inaugural faculty of the full time Western New England College Law School in 1973 as the librarian. He lacked a law degree at the time, but his mentor, the demanding Roy Mersky of Texas law School, vouched for him. Don then earned his J.D. in the part time program of WNEC, immediately earning the respect of his very talented classmates. Don wisely recused himself from personnel matters at Faculty Meetings, but remained Faculty Secretary.
Howard I. Kalodner was the successful Dean of WNEC for 17 years before retiring in 1994. His successor lasted only two years, leaving the Law School in disarray. Don was the obvious choice as Acting Dean. He worked miracles with unifying the Faculty. He then became the Dean.
Those of us in the Academy recognize that meek, mild law professors can turn into flaming prima donnas without great leadership. Both Don and Howard were wonderful leaders.
The University of La Verne called, wanting Don to lead them to the promised land of ABA accreditation. La Verne is a California University on the rise. Moving the unaccredited law school to full ABA accreditation would be a significant accomplishment and an external validation of academic quality.
Don was the obvious choice. Not only did Don have experience from WNEC, but also expertise with the ABA. Don served on scores of ABA site visitation teams, often on the most difficult inspections, including start up law schools.
The cross country move to California brought both personal and professional success.
His son, Kevin, daughter in law, Wendy, and grandsons, Camden and Tobin, moved close by, and Don was able to attend two Rose Bowls, watching his beloved Longhorns beat Michigan and then USC for the national title.
He shaped up La Verne’s facilities, recruited an outstanding faculty, and received provisional ABA accreditation. Like Moses though, he did not live to see final success, but the request for full ABA accreditation goes forward. Don was diagnosed with the cancer a year ago, at an all too young an age.
I believe he accepted the La Verne appointment because, deep down, he enjoyed the challenge. To achieve success at a WNEC or La Verne is exemplary. To maintain success at an elite institution is expected, and often only requires an ability to raise funds, mollify faculty and presidents, and satisfy trustees and regents (not always an easy task as President Lawrence Summers can attest). Don had turned down many an offer of the librarianship at prestigious law schools. He enjoyed the challenges and camaraderie at WNEC.
Every school has its issues, but success at a WNEC or La Verne is much more notable than at one of the nation’s great universities. Reputation, finances, faculty and student quality, and even survival are challenges. Don worked miracles within the constraints of tight resources.
Don instinctively understood the role of La Verne and WNEC. The La Verne’s and WNEC’s provide the American Dream, offering a quality education, often to the first generation to attend college.
Don was a populist, reflecting his roots, but politics never influenced his relationships with others. He judged people on their inherent qualities, working well with others. He had an advantage because Don had an innate ability to assess the competence of individuals and then bring out their best.
He had a steadying effect on his employees, colleagues, administrators and fellow students. Patience and fortitude were his virtues. A great example of Don’s ability to sooth is shown when his secretary’s fiancé called off the wedding shortly before the ceremony- obviously a traumatic act. Tracy was back working in a few days and within a few months the fiancé came back, hat in hand praying for Tracy’s forgiveness.
The glass was always full for Don. The question never arose as to whether the glass was half full or half empty. He was the eternal optimist, but always cognizant of the foibles and weaknesses of humans. There were no problems – only challenges and opportunities. Sometimes he needed a few extra puffs to maintain his equilibrium, but he always conveyed calmness and coolness.
His loyal library staff reciprocated his respect. They were competent, collegial and loyal. Significantly, staff turnover was low.
His office and mind were always open, even when he was outside smoking in the freezing winters of New England.
We celebrate the life of Don because we were fortunate to share in it.
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