Gene Dunne was a former Green Beret with a doctorate from Harvard who once turned down a job offer from the White House. The Boston native, who died recently at age 69, was more comfortable driving a taxi or delivering meals to Santa Fe shut-ins.
“We lived in D.C. and would occasionally attend one of those la-di-da parties. You know, the type that Harvard people like to get dressed up for,” said Adele Dunne, Gene Dunne’s wife of 49 years. “People would come up to us and say, ‘So what do you do?’ and we just never understood why that mattered so much to those people. Later in life, I know he dropped the Ph.D. off his résumé.”
According to his wife, Dunne grew up in what he called deep and dysfunctional poverty around Boston. After barely graduating high school, he was hitchhiking to New York City when some recently escaped convicts picked him up on Interstate 95. Once in the city, he safely bailed out of the truck he was riding in and found odd jobs moving pianos in the Bronx and cooking in a cafeteria in Harlem.
After a few months in New York, Dunne moved back to Massachusetts, where he met Adele by a pond near some woods in 1969. Technically, each was with somebody else when they met, but six weeks later, the new couple was engaged. They married within a year.
Drafted during the Vietnam War, Dunne served in an airborne unit of the Green Berets stationed near the Panama Canal, his wife said. He learned to jump out of airplanes but never saw combat.
After a year in Central America, Dunne returned to Boston and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts and a doctorate in government from Harvard based on a 600-page thesis on congressional reform. While in school, he started driving a cab on the side.
The Harvard degree helped prompt Ronald Reagan’s White House to offer Dunne a job that his widow said would have meant helping to cut Medicare and Medicaid benefits for the poor and elderly. Declining was easy.
“He refused to do it right away,” Adele Dunne said. “He turned down that job on the spot.”
Instead, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., so he could lobby for nuclear arms control with the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and raise money for progressive causes, such as the government transparency nonprofit Common Cause and consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen.
In the late-1980s, Dunne returned to where he felt he belonged.
“He wanted a less stressful life,” Adele Dunne said. “And somehow driving a cab through D.C. at night during the crack wars was less stressful than what he had been doing.”
While driving a cab around D.C. for 15 years, Dunne was robbed and shot at but enjoyed learning life stories along the streets at night. After the taxi company he drove for tried to force its drivers onto an unfavorable insurance plan, Dunne led a labor revolt for a better deal and to end a system in which drivers had to bribe dispatchers for the most lucrative routes. Adele Dunne said that while her husband was organizing fellow cab drivers, he hired a body guard for protection.
“Word was out they were going to beat the crap out of him,” she said.
The Dunnes moved to Santa Fe in 2003, she said, and after unsuccessfully trying to land a job with a local cab company that thought he was an undercover federal agent, Gene Dunne drove for Santa Fe’s Meals on Wheels program, which strives to relieve hunger and isolation by delivering meals, from 2010-17.
“He was really the perfect fit for the job — personable, gentle and willing to go out of his way to do something for you,” said Carlos Sandoval, Meals on Wheels director for Santa Fe. “All of our clients really miss him. He would go visit them even on days he wasn’t working just to talk.”
Sandoval used to joke that Gene Dunne must have been in the federal witness protection program because he seemed mysteriously overqualified. Not until Adele Dunne sent him an obituary recently did he learn the full story.
“He never spoke about being a Green Beret or graduating from Harvard or any of that,” Sandoval said, “because he cared more about being a genuine person and a helping hand than what some piece of paper said he was.”