Lessons of his life: ‘I am thankful that he was my teacher and my friend’
by David Satcher
Special to The Star
Aug 26, 2012 | 6190 views |  0 comments | 292 292 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Editor’s note: David Satcher, the former U.S. surgeon general, gave the eulogy for Calhoun County Commissioner James “Pappy” Dunn, who died Aug. 14. These are Satcher’s remarks.

Let me begin by thanking Barbara Dunn and the Dunn family for intrusting to me the opportunity to present the eulogy at this celebration of life for James A. “Pappy” Dunn. In a sense, I feel inadequate to give the eulogy for Pappy Dunn because his was such a great and impactful life that it is difficult to do justice to it in the form of a eulogy, but I am committed to try.

There are two points I would like to make.

The first is that as we gather to reflect on the life of Pappy Dunn and to join his wife, Barbara, and the Dunn family in this farewell celebration, we have much for which we should be thankful and much to celebrate. We were blessed that he lived and worked in our community so diligently and for so many years. We were blessed that he was such a great teacher, coach, principal and county commissioner, that he was such a great neighbor, friend, husband and father. I am thankful that he was my teacher and my friend. I am also thankful that generations of students have and will benefit from those whom Pappy taught, students who went on to teach many others.

My brother Robert, whom we call Bob, was inspired by Pappy Dunn to go to Alabama State and major in chemistry. He went on to get his Ph.D. from Oregon State University. Recently, upon his retirement from the presidency of St. Paul’s College in Virginia, he was made president emeritus. During the ceremony, it was pointed out that Bob as a teacher had a tremendous impact on students and that an estimated 60 of his former students went on to receive their Ph.D.s or master’s degrees.

I called these grand-students of Pappy Dunn. They all benefited from Pappy’s influence on Bob’s career, and I’m sure that many students will benefit from their careers. Grand-students are like grandchildren. A former commissioner of agriculture in Tennessee used to say, “If I had known that grandchildren would be so much fun, I would have had them first.” Pappy had many grand-students, many of whom he never met.

My second point is that there are lessons from Pappy’s life that we should never forget. Now, since I realize many of you knew Pappy quite well and many of you worked with him, I will speak as if I were speaking to a group of students who never met Pappy Dunn.

There are three lessons from the life of Pappy Dunn we should never forget:

The first lesson he taught us is how to live life with a positive attitude and spirit, and how to live with passion and devotion. Pappy had an indomitable spirit that could not be crushed or diminished by circumstances. In fact, he taught us that the right spirit could elevate our circumstances.

My sister-in-law Carolyn is a serious student of history, especially black history. She works in a community college library and stays in touch with history. Pappy Dunn, Carolyn tells me, grew up in Monroe, Ga., about 50 miles from Atlanta. He started teaching at Calhoun County Training School and taught for about 40 years, interrupted only by his service in World War II. But in Monroe, Ga., Pappy’s hometown, history documents that there was a veteran of World War II who was highly decorated for his services. His last name was Dorsey. He came back to Monroe to live, marry and raise a family. But in 1946, this veteran, his wife and a couple traveling with them were lynched on the Moore-Ford Bridge in Monroe. The lynching was never resolved, no one was ever charged.

Thus, you can imagine the circumstances of Pappy’s upbringing in Monroe. But Pappy also taught in difficult circumstances, often with hand-me-down books and inadequate resources. I remember when I took chemistry from Pappy Dunn. The laboratory was a desk about 15 feet long around which students stood to observe and conduct experiments. Pappy at one point was trying to teach us to balance chemical equations. He soon realized that most of the students did not understand or could not work with basic fractions. Pappy could have been disappointed and despaired, but instead he developed a noon class in remedial math in order to help the students understand chemical equations and balance them. Although I thought I understood fractions, I learned a lot about problem solving in that noon class and began to take a problem-solving approach that later served me quite well at Morehouse College when I took chemistry, physics and related courses.

His positive and indomitable spirit led him to develop this class even though he was also coaching football and basketball, teaching chemistry, and doing just about any other thing that needed to be done. His was an indomitable spirit. He lived through the Great Depression and once told us how, as a student at Alabama State, he went to his older brother, C.J. Dunn, who was on the faculty at the school, to borrow a nickel. His brother did not have it — such was the Great Depression. But Pappy’s spirit survived the Great Depression.

2. The second lesson from Pappy Dunn’s life is that we are to care for each other and work for each other’s good, treating others with respect, civility and even honor. One of my favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes among the many I have used over the years is the one in which he says, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” Pappy was always doing for others.

Now, in addition to myself, Pappy taught other members of my family. In fact, he taught six of us including my oldest sister Lottie, who is here today, and my sister Olivia, who passed last year. He also taught John, Charles and Bob. I spoke with Charles this morning and he insisted that I share this story with you. When I first met Pappy Dunn, I only heard his voice and didn’t see his face. It was between 3 and 4 in the morning and Charles was supposed to go with Pappy Dunn and his class on a field trip. Charles was so excited, but he forgot to set the alarm so that he could wake my father and be taken to the bus.

When Charles woke up, it was at least an hour too late. He was devastated. I slept in a bed between Charles and Bob, so I remember just how devastated Charles was when he awoke and realized he had missed the bus. But then we saw lights coming up the hill, then a knock at the door, and then the voice of Pappy speaking to my father with deep respect. “Mr. Satcher, sir,” he said, “I am Pappy Dunn and I am here because I’m concerned about Charles. I know how much this trip meant to him and I just didn’t want him to miss the bus.” So that night I met Pappy Dunn and will never forget how he cared about my brother Charles. It reminded me of Jesus’ parable about the shepherd who had 100 sheep and he left the 99 to go and seek the one that was lost. That’s caring. That was Pappy Dunn.

At the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine, we like to say that, “in order to eliminate disparities in health, we need leaders who first care enough, who know enough, will do enough, and will persevere until the job is done.” Pappy never stopped caring as a teacher, coach, principal, citizen or county commissioner — he never stopped caring.

3. The third and final lesson I would like to share with you from Pappy’s life is that we must live and lead in life as if life is a relay race. Not only must we advance the baton, but we must pass it on to those coming after us and pass it in such a way that they cannot only receive it but receive it with momentum and go faster and further than we could go. Life is indeed like a relay race.

Today, one must be concerned as we see our children dropping out of school and becoming pregnant prematurely or filling the cells of our jails and prisons. We must be concerned about the future and about the baton of education, coaching, parenting, citizenship and leadership. We cannot afford to drop the baton. Such is the challenge that we face today as we say goodbye to Pappy Dunn.

We must invest more time, more energy and more resources in developing our children of all races, cultures, and socio-economic status. And our children must listen and heed the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his great poem called, “A Psalm of Life.” Let me share with you the last three verses.

“Lives of great men all remind us
“We can make our lives sublime,
“And, departing, leave behind us
“Footprints on the sand of time;
“Footprints, that perhaps another,
“Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
“A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
“Seeing, shall take heart again.
“Let us then be up and doing,
“With a heart for any fate;
“Still achieving, still pursuing,
“Learn to labor and to wait.”

David Satcher, an Anniston native, was U.S. surgeon general from 1998 to 2002. He now is director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
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