Occupy protester Dave Dollens sustains passion for activism in Columbia

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:45 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Although the Occupy movement has dropped in intensity a year after it started, some people still remain active in the protest in Columbia, including Dave Dollens who crusades for several issues.

COLUMBIA — Dave Dollens' tan skin and weathered veterans' rights sign hinted at long days spent in the sun.

On another hot day earlier this month, Dollens, 70, was sitting in front of the Daniel Boone City Building with other Occupy COMO protesters.  

They waved protest signs in the same spot where, less than a year ago, the vigor of the Occupy COMO movement could have been measured in dozens of tents and sleeping bags.

"Now, there's not as many people involved," Dollens said. "We had quite a few kids up there from MU student groups last year, but no one's showed up this year so far."

Yet, he continues to protest and help out his neighbors. The Occupy movement, which marked its one-year anniversary Monday on Wall Street, is just one aspect of Dollens' tireless activism.

He is a recognizable face around town, fighting for the poor and homeless, defending veterans' rights and protesting social inequality. 

Crusading for the homeless

He crusades on behalf of the homeless because he doesn't understand how the United States can be so rich and still have people without a place to sleep or a meal to eat, he said.

Even in Columbia, homeless shelters can fill up completely, said Dollens, who lives in Paquin Tower. He learned that lesson at a shelter in Missouri United Methodist Church, where he volunteered a few years ago.

"There were nights when the shelter was filled to capacity," said Marsha Sergent, who works for the church.

Dollens took on minimum wage as advocacy groups in Missouri were trying to put an increase on the November ballot, along with tighter regulations on payday loans. He said he visited several counties collecting hundreds of signatures before the September deadline.

Dollens even went out to protest on Labor Day when advocacy groups dropped legal efforts against a ruling that prevented the initiative from going to voters.

Despite the setback, he plans to keep on collecting signatures for initiatives, protesting and volunteering.

Stumping for veterans rights

He often crusades for veterans' rights, a cause that has been personally and ideologically important to him and his family since he left the Navy in 1966.

He sustained minor hearing loss in the Navy from routinely being around the turret gun on his cruiser, the USS Newport News. The injury has complicated his search for employment and fueled his passion for social justice.

"We both found out that we like standing up for the underdog," said fellow veteran and protester Arthur Klein. "I think me and him have a little trouble going with the flow."

Growing up in small Missouri towns, Dollens said racial tension kindled his awareness of social inequality.

His father opened "Dello's" pizza parlor in 1958 in Mexico, Mo., where Dollens and his seven brothers and seven sisters helped their father make pizzas and wash dishes.

He said his father was a role model for social equality. Black customers weren't forced to sit in the back of the restaurant as they might have been at other restaurants.

Dollens said he remembers when some of the "big wheels" in town told his father to stop paying black employees fair wages or else all the black workers in town would expect to be paid fairly. He said his father responded by giving the workers a 25-cent raise.

In 1960, the Navy pulled Dollens out of small town life and into training. Two years later, he was set out to sea on the USS Newport News.

He fell in love in Norway

He's been to France, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Sweden and Norway, among other countries. He said he fell in love when he was stationed in Norway for three weeks, though he can’t remember her name because it was "too long."

He prefers not to talk about some parts of the service. He wears other parts on his sleeve, such as the camaraderie he felt for those around him and a mutual trust Dollens fostered with his friends in the Navy. 

In many ways, the war never ended for Dollens, and it has taken a toll on his family. One of his brothers was killed in Vietnam. His brother Bud suffered lifelong effects from radiation he was exposed to in the Army.

Dollens said his youngest brother still suffers from exposure to Agent Orange from when he served in the Marines in Vietnam. 

After he was discharged from the Navy, Dollens bounced around between Missouri, Iowa and Florida, mainly working in manual labor jobs. 

Waging a long hunger strike

In 1985, during his early protests in Columbia, he went on a hunger strike to secure more city funding for social services. The City Council had frozen its support of the mid-Missouri Food Bank. Dollens sat on the steps of the Boone Building for a week, but the council didn't budge.

He worked as a janitor for $4 an hour at MU from 1987 to 1997, and said he would sometimes hide money around the dorms for students to find.

He has ladled food for the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen and said he has treated as many as 20 neighborhood kids to pizza parties.

Dollens has never been a passive observer in Columbia. He is better known to some around Columbia as "Crazy Dave"or "The Crazy Saint."

His protests in front of the Boone Building open a dialogue with the public and often between the protesters themselves, said John Fry, a fellow protester who makes his signs.  

"Dave's got a sense of what's fair and what's right," Fry said. "We drive each other crazy sometimes, but, at least we're talking. That is something that is sadly missed by the majority of society. That's the beauty of all this."

Spending thousands on the lottery

In 1986, Dollens adopted a faithful habit. He began to play the lottery religiously.

"He's here almost everyday. Sometimes he buys $50 tickets. Sometime he buys $80 tickets, you never know," said Tina Patel, a cashier at the Hitt Street Mini Mart.

He estimates that he has spent about $150,000 on the Lotto, Mega Millions and Powerball and has probably won $800.

He plays his favorite numbers obsessively. He picks them by coding their relationship to the alphabet.

"Every number that comes out of that machine has a meaning," he said.

Some numbers that he codes out are special dates to Dollens. Others represent cities he's lived in, Bible verses or political candidates he follows.

He insists it's the only bad habit he has.

Dollens keeps trash bags full of losing tickets on a shelf in his apartment. He keeps his pending tickets in his King James Bible.

"The money is supposed to be going toward education, so I don't mind it. My brothers and sisters tell me that it's a crutch for me to justify spending all this money, though," he said, laughing.

If he ever did win the lottery, he said he'd give most of it away and throw "a big party."

He vows to continue fighting for causes in Columbia, even though the city has changed for him over the years.

"I used to be able to sit on the corner and know every student that walked by. Now, I could sit out there for a week and not know anyone," Dollens said, referring to MU students.

"They were like my own kids, man."

Every once in a while, he will run into a kid he used to take to Godfather's pizza.

"Now those kids have kids. That's how you know you're getting old."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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