John Dunn: Almonte’s storyteller

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EDITOR’S NOTE: I hear from readers asking who John Dunn is and how he came to write the lovely local stories we publish here in the Millstone.
John passed away in 2006 at the age of 87, leaving behind an impressive legacy of tales about our area, which his son Michael shares with me. John’s daughter Angela passes on this memoir of her dad.

John Patrick Dunn: A biography

By Angela Dunn 

John Patrick Dunn was a local historian, councillor and storyteller who immortalized the people and places of the Ottawa Valley and especially his hometown of Almonte, Ontario in his short stories and writings.

He was born in 1919, the second in a family of 13 children. His parents, Mary Helena Moynihan, a schoolteacher, and John Francis Dunn, a local doctor, raised their family in a large stone house at the corner of Queen and Clyde Streets, known as “The Doctor’s House.” From his mother he learned to play piano, a talent that he would practice daily throughout his life. From his father he inherited the gift of listening, an appreciation for nature and a desire to explore new territory.

John’s childhood provided the foundation for his later stories, and his intense interest in local history. Growing up in the 1920s and 30s in a country doctor’s house, he witnessed the passing of life and the shadow of death daily. John recalled the tenderness his father showed in his years of doctoring: “Many families were poor and the times were often bitter for want of food and goods for barter. But never was a call for the doctor refused or any concern given to the ability to pay or the timeliness of payment.”* A quarter of beef or a side of pork and once a box of wild duck (after the close of season) – these were alternative forms of payment in those days.

As a boy, John had the unique honour of accompanying his father on trips to patients in the surrounding countryside. In the summer he drove a Huppmobile and in winter he would hitch Frank, their horse, to the cutter, steering his father across the snowy back roads of Lanark County, the two of them covered in bearskin rugs. In “Help with the Driving”* he recalls getting a rare pass from school to drive his father’s new Huppmobile to Brockville and back. He was 15 and excited to drive a route he still enjoyed travelling later in life, at roughly the same speed.

Those trips could take hours or days and the boy learned to appreciate the value of time well spent in the company of his father. The stories collected in a slim volume, “Tales from the Doctor’s House,” are redolent with detail: the mansions of the mighty on the St. Lawrence, wild orchids, blue herons, the smell of ether, the cast iron horsehead hitching post outside his father’s office door.

While still in High School, John became chauffeur to Robert Tait McKenzie, a local sculptor and medical professional. Legend has it that McKenzie stopped by the doctor’s house one Sunday in 1937 to ask if one of the boys would be available to act as his driver. The two physicians renewed an acquaintance that had begun in 1898 when Dr. Dunn entered the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal, where Dr. McKenzie became his anatomy instructor. John spent the summer of 1937 driving Tait McKenzie to Ottawa, Philadelphia and Toronto.

John graduated from St. Michael’s College at University of Toronto with a B.A. in 1941 and immediately enlisted in the Canadian Army Service Corps where he rose to the rank of Captain and served as an Education Officer in England. In 1945 he volunteered for active duty in Japan. Prior to departing for the Pacific Theatre, he took a leave of six weeks to marry his bride, Marie Dewan of Ingersoll, Ontario. As luck would have it, the war ended during their honeymoon, the first of many signs that their marriage was sealed under a lucky star. Together, they raised 12 children.

His first civilian career was as a teacher of English, History and Latin at the high school in Copper Cliff, Ontario and later in Almonte.  He then went to work for the Public Service of Canada from which he retired in 1984. He was active on the North Lanark Historical Society, Almonte Town Council and the Catholic School Board for years and a founding member of the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum.

Adept with language, he was never elitist about education. For him, the best education came in the form of oral histories shared by people of the Ottawa Valley, stories he remembered and put to paper. His children well remember how he would quiz them at the dinner table about the etymology of words, eager for the opportunity to remind them of the Latin or Greek roots of the English language. While waiting for heart surgery late in life, he was discovered reading Tennyson. Every year on Robbie Burns Day he could be counted on to recite enthusiastically from “To a Mouse.”

One of his favorite pastimes was taking Sunday drives in the country with as many children as he could pack into a car. On these journeys, he would retrace the paths he took with his father, stopping at ponds in winter to let the children skate, or in summer for picnics in Blakeney and Appleton.

As a local historian, he researched and wrote prolifically about local events and landmarks including the 1942 train accident in Almonte, the Auld Kirk, the post office, and the Mill of Kintail, to name just a few. The body of John’s work encompasses hundreds of stories, historical sketches, poems, and letters written primarily in the latter half of his life. In his pursuit of storytelling, listening avidly to the raconteurs of the Ottawa Valley, he became one himself.

John died in December, 2006 but his tales live on for readers to enjoy.

* “Trees,” Tales From the Doctor’s House

** “Mostly Billy,” Tales From the Doctor’s House

“Tales From the Doctor’s House” is available at Mill Street Books in Almonte.