Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on March 26, 2015
Don Dunning is a man who enjoys telling a story on himself. Like the time he walked into Fedi’s shortly after finding out he had been elected to the board of the Shelter Island Public Library, and ran into Mimi Brennan, the Dorothy Parker of the Island.
Mimi congratulated him. “I said I was kind of shocked because I don’t even read that much,” Don said, and Mimi cracked, “I was shocked too, because I didn’t think you could read.”
Getting Don to talk about his accomplishments, including three decades with the Lions Clubs of Seaford and Shelter Island, 28 years of service with the Visions Center on Blindness and his service on the Shelter Island Public Library Board of Trustees, is like pulling teeth. Fortunately, Don’s wife Corinne was present at the interview and ready to help pull.
Born in 1940, Don and his twin brother Dan grew up in Valley Stream. Don and Corinne met at Valley Stream South High School, when he was a sophomore and she was a freshman. “Judy Perine was talking to me about you.” Don told her. “Finally I saw you in the hall.”
Don got a little emotional remembering his middle school gym teacher, Harold Earl, a legendary Long Island wrestling coach. “He pulled me aside in gym class in the 8th grade and told me that he thought I would be a good wrestler and I should go out for the high school team,” Don said. “I don’t know if it would have occurred to me.
Thank God he did it then, because it gave me a good start.”
He started out wrestling in the 148-pound weight class, moving up through high school in a sport that eventually paved his way to Syracuse on a scholarship. “I learned that you have to work hard, day after day, to refine all of the moves that you are required to make,” he said. “The repetition is an important part.”
Don and Corinne were apart for the four years he went to Syracuse, but married soon after he graduated in 1962.
Proving that even two people married for five decades don’t know everything about each other, when Don pulled their wedding portrait out of his wallet, Corinne was shocked to learn that he carries it with him at all times.
“Do you?” she asked. “I never knew that. Seriously?”
Don started work as an elementary school science teacher in Mineola and also helped coach wrestling, lacrosse and football. “The kids were born while I was teaching,” he said. “They started to come along pretty fast.”
Brian, Mike and Kevin were born in 1964, 65 and 68. “Whew!” said Corinne.
Mike and Kevin now live on Shelter Island with their families, (four grandchildren) and Brian lives up-Island with his family (three more grandchildren). Whew!
While teaching in Mineola, Don got a grant from the National Science Foundation, allowing him to complete a master’s degree in science education at Antioch College over three summers. His time at Antioch, during the height of the 1960s campus unrest, was formative.
“It was a very progressive, liberal school and my background was not progressive,” Don said. “It was great experience and enabled me to meet men and women from all over the country.”
After another year at a new school in Wantagh, Don realized teaching wasn’t for him. His brother Dan, who also had been teaching, reached the same conclusion. In 1969 they become partners in Dunning Bros. Construction, a residential construction company they ran for 35 years.
In 1985, Don joined the Lions Club in Seaford and began to see ways to give back. “It made me enjoy being a volunteer,” he said. One of the missions of the Lions is helping the blind and Don was drawn to this work.
He began working as a volunteer at the Visions Center on Blindness, a 35-acre residential camp and recreation center for the blind in Rockland County, which is now one of the largest and most comprehensive overnight training and vision rehabilitation facilities in the United States.
“It was a pretty interesting place,” Don said. “It had an elaborate system of railings, marked in Braille for the blind. I went up there and built and repaired buildings. My construction experience was exactly what they needed, and I enjoyed it.”
Eventually he was named to the Executive Committee of the camp and to the Board of Directors for Visions. After retiring from the Visions board in 2010, he was called back to the board in May 2014.
In 1996, the Seaford Lions Club honored Don with the Melvin Jones Award in recognition of his humanitarian work, and in 2002, Newsday featured Don in its series “Everyday Hero” with a profile entitled, “A Ray of Light for the Blind.”
Don and Corinne started coming out to the Island in the 1990s when Don got involved with real estate through Seaford friends, John and Fannie Quigley, and began building spec houses here. Later, two of their sons moved to the Island to work on houses. “When the boys moved out, we knew we would come out here,” Don said.
By 2005 Don and Corinne were living on the Island full time in a house they built themselves.
He’s remained active in the Shelter Island Lions Club, serving as head of the Membership Committee. In 2009 the Shelter Island Lions gave him the “Knight of the Blind” award in recognition of his work for the blind.
Don is active now with a new Visions project — to build a residential rehabilitation center for people who have recently become blind. The $8.5 million center, to be built in Spring Valley, will provide training services for those recently stricken with blindness. One of the first centers of its kind in the Eastern U. S., it will serve the entire area.
In 2010, Don was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Shelter Island Library, where his construction experience proved invaluable as the library undertook the renovation of the lower level of the building. He’s served as vice president of the board for four years and was part of the search committee for the newly appointed library director, Terry Lucas.
Don’s record of service begs the question: What motivates a person with no personal experience of blindness to work for decades helping the blind? What inspires a person who is not an avid reader to work so hard in support of the library?
Corinne answered, “He cares. He really cares.”