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'W.' Double Take

A retired MU professor is more than just an executive face
Sunday, July 4, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:39 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

John Dunn didn’t feel the usual stares as he drank his coffee at the Cherry Street Artisan a few months ago. It’s the hair, combed into a perfect presidential coif, that usually elicits looks. Oh, and the eyes. His small eyes make people turn their heads, too. But then a brave employee came up to Dunn’s table.

“You know you look a lot like George Bush,” she said.

He laughed. “Yeah, I get that.”

“It’s the squinty little eyes,” she said. She realized the negative connotation and rephrased. “They’re beautiful eyes, but they’re squinty.” Dunn didn’t mind. The woman walked away, and he went back to his coffee as though this had happened a hundred times before.

For the past four years the recently retired MU professor,who studied turfgrass, has dealt with craning necks and staring people, all noticing the resemblance to President George W. Bush. He takes it in stride, even once putting up a picture of George and Laura Bush next to the front door for his guests’ amusement.

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Can you tell which is the real president?

But his life is defined by so much more than a physical similarity to Bush. It’s a life made up of 30 years of research, colleagues and students. It’s about finally getting close to a cancer-riddled father. And it’s full of sacrifice for children and 43 years of love for a wife.

Friends, colleagues and family describe Dunn as quiet, reserved and fairly private.

The seeds of his love for turfgrass were planted when he was 15, growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia. His father, a successful salesman and top amateur golfer, traveled throughout the week and played golf on the weekends.

“My father was the kind that enjoyed family but would always stay on the periphery of family get-togethers,” Dunn says. “It made it hard to get to know him.”

So one of the few places Dunn got to be with his dad was on the links, where he began to enjoy the pleasure of a well-groomed course. He studied turf management at Pennsylvania State University, and in his senior year, he went on a blind date with Marilee, though everyone called her “Cricket.” Even after he got out of the Army and moved to New York, he visited her often. They married in 1961.

In New York, Dunn worked as an assistant buyer for the men’s department at Lord & Taylor, only a mile from Bloomingdale’s and Sak’s Fifth Avenue. Dunn, the man who would eventually end up studying grass and soils, chose the clothing styles for the famous Fifth Avenue store. Shirts by Polo and Lacoste. Jewelry by Destino. Belts, wallets, slacks and tie clips — he bought it all. And sometimes the store would have free Broadway tickets, so he’d sit in the balcony right under the heater and watch “Camelot” or “Fiddler on the Roof,” though he often fell asleep because of the heat and exhaustion from working so hard.

“At that time, it was a pretty fast pace,” Dunn says. “There was a lot of activity all the time, running up and down Manhattan, buying things for the store and dealing with customers. As a young man, it was pretty fun.”

But the two-and-a-half hour round-trip commute from New Jersey — “Columbians don’t know what commuting is” — took its toll, and Dunn began to miss the commune with nature he felt out on a well-maintained golf course. He once again studied turfgrass, this time at Rutgers University where he earned his master’s degree in 1966 and his doctoral degree in 1968, the same year George Bush received his bachelor’s degree from Yale.

When Dunn got out, one of the few positions available was at MU, and though he thought that “Ohio was at the edge of the western world, and Missouri was over the edge,” he believed the people at Rutgers who said MU was one of the top agriculture schools.

Once at MU, Dunn helped develop the MU Turfgrass Research Center south of Columbia. Here he studied the tolerance of certain grasses for what is known as the transition zone, an area in between the northern and southern United States where most turfgrasses and shrubs are not totally adapted. This kind of research helped find grass most suitable for athletic fields and golf courses in middle America.

Friends and colleagues say Dunn is a scholarly man but reserved in conversation and not one to talk a lot about himself.

“John may be quiet,” says Brad Fresenburg, a fellow colleague in the turfgrass program. “But he is so well respected in the turfgrass industry across the state, and he is a great teacher to his students.”

And when his students weren’t doing well, he would worry about it at home, Cricket says. He thought he should have taught something better or put in more time with someone, she says.

Dan Ochsner, a former student and current head groundskeeper for the Ozark Mountain Ducks, a minor-league baseball team near Springfield, says Dunn didn’t have to worry about doing too little for students. While working on the baseball field as an undergraduate, Ochsner remembers having little problems that Dunn would come out to the field to help with.

“He is definitely a major part that contributed to my success in school and after graduation,” Ochsner says. “And I think most people in the program would share that sentiment.”

Jackie Pagni, a Columbia College professor, meets with Dunn early in the morning about four times a week at Lakota Coffee Co. She says he is a quiet, private guy, but one who is “incredibly proud of his kids’ accomplishments and how they’re living their lives.”

Twenty-one years ago when Michele Warmund came to MU, her office was on the other side of the floor from Dunn’s. But she soon moved to the office across the hall from him, and “that was the best move I ever made.”

They often ran into each other out in the hall where they leaned on the walls and talked about their respective research. The “Hallway Conversations,” as Warmund dubbed them, were the root that grew into several co-authored research papers.

“John has been a great mentor to me,” she says. “He is quiet and modest but truly a terrific person, very scholarly and someone I can aspire to be like.”

As dedicated as Dunn was to his job, he didn’t put it above his family. He and his wife “could not be more different,” according to Cricket.

“I’m on full speed all the time, and he’s always on slow,” she says. “But he never makes me think I should live any other way. Sometimes I’ll be in another room and I’ll say, ‘John, come quick; you’ve got to see this,’ and he never makes it. He doesn’t have the capacity to hurry, but I envy that. And I’m very much in love with him as much as when I was in my 20s.”

And when the two had children, Dunn made sure the distance between him and his father never materialized between him and his children.

He coached his daughter’s soccer team and came to her basketball games. “He was an incredible father, supportive and encouraging,” says his daughter, Amy Moore. And he watched his son’s band concerts and yelled at his high school soccer games.

“He was the greatest dad,” says Dunn’s son, also named John Dunn. So when the older Dunn was heavily recruited by the agriculture department at North Carolina State University, he had a hard time over the idea of moving. He mulled it over for days and days, and his son even remembers Dunn and Cricket looking at housing diagrams for North Carolina.

“We love that state, with the mountains and the ocean,” Cricket says. “But our son was about to go into his senior year in high school, and John just couldn’t move the family. He told me later, ‘Cricket, when I leave the university, nobody will remember me. And if I go to another university, nobody will remember I went there. What I want to be remembered for is being a good father.’”

And so they stayed, and their children grew up. Amy moved to Kansas City,and John went to Maryland. Dunn visits Amy a lot and has gone out to see John and his wife, Catherine, and their new daughter, Natalia, three times this year.

“He’s so good with his granddaughter,” John says. “He will play with Natalia and make funny faces.”

It was this kind of relationship that Dunn never had with his father. But as Dunn reached his late 40s, he and his father played more golf together.

“It was a nice way to communicate with him, to socialize with him,” Dunn says. “It was something we had in common and something I know he liked, and we talked out there.”

They talked about sports and Dunn’s job. But mostly they talked about family and by walking around the smooth turfgrass of fairways and greens. They connected.

Three months before cancer took his father, Dunn went to see him in Pennsylvania. When the visit ended and the two walked to the door, Dunn turned and said to his father for the first time in his life, “I love you.”

It was the last time Dunn saw his father.

Strangers don’t know about Dunn’s kids or his research, and they don’t know about his father. But they know he looks like George Bush. It started during the 2000 presidential campaign.

Linda Bennett, a former administrative assistant in the plant sciences unit, walked by Dunn’s office and poked her head in. “You know you look a lot like George Bush,” she said. After that, Bennett called him Bush when they joked around. Dunn would even write in his e-mails to her about his brother Jeb, and then he’d sign it “Bush.”

Every time Michele Warmund brought her 8-year-old son to the office he would ask her, “Are we going to see the guy that looks like the president?”

A colleague in the turfgrass program, Brad Fresenburg, noticed the similarities, and his wife, Carol, even made a comment about it. Amy says her dad’s eyes and hair are similar to Bush’s. And Dunn’s son, John, likes to think he was actually the first person to notice the resemblance when he opened up the Washington Post one morning during the 2000 campaign and was “aghast to see my father’s picture.”

Some people, however, don’t see it all. Warmund never noticed until her son pointed it out. Pagni, Dunn’s Lakota coffee friend, says, “I don’t think he looks much like Bush.” And the resemblance had never occurred to Dunn’s former student, Ochsner.

But the people of Missouri continue to cast their vote in stares. At airports and restaurants, at the Tan-Tar-A Resort and even at a funeral, people have asked him about George Bush. Dunn likes to say that he might look like the president from far away, but close up, he’s got the nose of Democrat and the late former speaker of the house, Tip O’Neill.

Dunn is described by his friends and colleagues as “keeping his personal things personal.” Still, he is not afraid to voice his opposition to his White House look-a-like.

As a member of the Episcopal Church, he doesn’t see the big deal about the Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop. And although he thinks people should go through with a pregnancy and give up the child for adoption, he favors abortion rights.

Dunn, ever the reserved diplomat his friends make him out to be, won’t say whether he was for or against the war in Iraq. “Now that the troops are over there, we should support them.” But his son says both his parents were “completely aghast at the war decision.”

“And that’s pretty funny,” John says, “because as my father likes Bush less and less, he looks more and more like him.”

But his views are only parts of the whole. When he wakes most mornings to go to Lakota, he is not Bush’s look-a-like; he’s John Dunn. He walks past a refrigerator plastered with family pictures on his way to the front door. The picture of the president that Dunn once posted there was taken down months ago. But the 28 pictures of his son and daughter and wife, all smiles and good times, are still on the table just inside the door.

He might stop looking like George Bush some day, but he will still look like the professor who helped students for 30 years. He’ll still look like the quiet colleague with a kind demeanor. And he’ll always look Amy and John’s father, like Cricket’s husband.


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