In working in journalism I’ve found that you learn something new every day, and if you don’t, you’re not trying hard enough. But some days are leaner than others, and when you talk to people you’re given the same old story time and time again.
That was never the case with Jim Dunn, the former publisher of the Iosco County News-Herald and Oscoda Press. Dunn passed away last week from complications of a heart attack. He worked at the newspaper in some capacity, as a reporter, photographer, editor, columnist and then publisher for more than 40 years in Iosco County, retiring in 2015. There was never a time when you talked to Jim that you didn’t get an interesting fact or story about the community or Michigan history. Nine times out of 10 you could even believe the fabulous yarn!
When telling stories to readers in his weekly column, “On the Record,” Dunn was subject to taking fantastical stories and humorous yarns about Iosco County. He was the community’s very own Pat McManus, and Dunn’s always funny column lampooned, but also informed, readers on local issues, events and other happenings. It was entertaining and informative and one of the reasons I aspire to write a column in the newspaper. It’s something that isn’t easy to do, and one of the things that Jim always made look easy, which means in the end that it is actually difficult.
Whether it was poking fun at local politicians or coming up with a fantastic, and maybe 50 to 60 percent true fishing or hunting story – or just a plain fairytale yarn in one of his columns, readers enjoyed his column for years. He even combined those columns into bound editions, and also wrote several fiction books, including “The Oscoda Murders” and “The Hemingway Murders.” I know when he was retired he was very gratified that the last column he wrote was printed in The Detroit News for the entire state to get a chance to read.
For an aspiring newspaper reporter, like myself, who started working in the newspaper business in Oscoda after college in 2006, Jim was a very good mentor and a person who always had my back in situations and gave me a lot of good council about how to cover events, handle situations with people we did stories on, or talk to public officials. Rarely was there a time when his office door wasn’t open to me to just come in when I pleased and sit and talk with him.
A lot of the times we would just sit there and “BS” about different things that had happened over the years, or he will fill in my gaps on Oscoda history from the era where he started out as a news reporter. Times were a lot different back then; there were a lot of ashtrays and cheesy mustaches in newsrooms, according to historical records.
I liked to hear those stories about how the newspaper business worked in the early days, like shooting football games with film cameras and then coming back to the office to develop in hopes that at least one picture would turn out OK enough to print.
One of the more serious things that I learned from Dunn was that angry people often just want to have someone to listen to them and get a chance to tell their story. It’s hard when you’re a kid, fresh out of college, and you’re on the phone with someone who is yelling at you, and you can’t get a word in edgewise, and you don’t know what to do with the situation.
“You just listen to them,” Dunn told me, which I sat in his office discussing my frustration with a phone conversation I recently had. “Most people just want to be heard.”
Jim taught me over the years that you should look for the people who want to have their stories heard, and that if you talk to someone long enough about anything, they will trust you to tell their story. One of the yearly stories that piqued Jim’s interest since he was a fledgling reporter was the AuSable River International Canoe Marathon. He told many stories about covering the race in his early reporting days, the struggles of the all-night affair, and how good I had it with modern equipment like a digital camera.
He always held a lot of reverence for the paddlers of the race, including Al Widing Sr., and other greats from the early days of the marathon. Coming in as the new reporter back in 2006, the torch of covering the marathon was passed to me, and I always had a lot of pressure to do a good job covering the event.
“I’m too old for this,” I remember him telling me one time about staying up all night to cover the race. But Jim was never too old for the race. He would also show up on finish line day with his notebook, camera, and help get photos of local racers I had missed in the night. You couldn’t drag him away from the race with wild trained buffalo.
Those of us who were lucky enough to know Jim will miss his sense of humor and his stories and conversations. He will be missed, and I’ll remember some of his advice for the rest of my life, including never going anywhere without a camera, as he always reminded me as a reporter to “make sure to take a picture,” no matter what the assignment was. Thanks for everything, Jim. Don’t give them too much grief in heaven!