To me, she was the sage in the back corner.
To everyone else, she was the head wizard at one of the more magical places in town. For 40 years, Mary-Lou Dunn served as director of the Sunshine School, a place of belonging in Searcy for children and adults with special needs.
A lifelong resident of White County who got her master’s in special education from Harding in 1977, Mary-Lou dedicated her entire adult life to serving a unique population with extra compassion and care. And she was the right person for the job. Humble and easy-going but also a fiercely passionate advocate for the disabled, Mary-Lou knew every student in her school. She knew every situation and every need, and the students loved her.
So did her staff. When she died on Feb. 27, 2021, at age 72, tributes flowed in from her co-workers, who called her the best boss they had ever had, an “outstanding mentor” and a “wonderful director.” At her service, one even called her “the compass in my life that pointed true North.” Her successor and life-long friend praised her great way with words, her deep faith and her wisdom in dealing with people.
Mary-Lou originally wanted to be a college English professor (though why anyone would want to do that is beyond me). Yet her life changed when she volunteered at the newly formed Sunshine School as a senior at Searcy High in 1966. She ended up teaching for seven years at McRae Elementary School before taking the job that would define her career in 1978.
For a long time, the school was in a facility that had no heat. Mary-Lou joked that you could always tell when it was too cold because the water in the fish tank froze. Later, the school moved from a converted army barracks to its current specially-built facility on Airport Loop. When the pandemic is over, you should go there sometime.
As the proud uncle of a nephew with Down syndrome, I know some of the joys and challenges of these very special people, and I was always in awe of Mary-Lou and others who give so unselfishly to them and who believe in them when others might not. As a dedicated volunteer for Special Olympics Arkansas year after year, she was a champion for the athletes and cheered louder than anyone.
Mary-Lou was a woman of many interests. She was an avid patron of live theater and served on the board at Searcy’s Center on the Square. She was an intense Arkansas Razorbacks fan and would sometimes bring up the team during prayer requests in our Bible class. She absolutely loved the beach and spent time every year with a group of special friends at Gulf Shores, Alabama. The music at her celebration of life party was a montage of vintage beach tunes. I suspect her service was the first and last time that the song “Yellow-Polka-Dot-Bikini’’ was played over the College Church of Christ loudspeaker.
Mary-Lou’s roots in White County went deep. Her great-great-grandfather laid out the streets in Searcy and named them after streets in Philadelphia — Arch, Race, Market, Vine and Spring. Her mother was part of the Yarnell family, and if you haven’t had their ice cream, she would ask what exactly you think you’re doing with your life.
The Sunshine School serves 65 to 75 students. Before she retired in 2018, Mary-Lou also managed the White County Group Home, a residential facility for 15 adults with special needs. She had started the home 30 years earlier.
Many Harding students have had connections to the Sunshine School over the years through volunteering or social clubs. If they got the chance to meet Mary-Lou Dunn, they saw a woman living out her faith daily in active — often intense — service to others.
I knew her best, though, as the sage in the back corner. When I came to Harding in 2003, I started attending College Church of Christ and almost immediately joined the Barnabas Class, a group with no demographic in particular. I gravitated to the front row. Mary-Lou held court in the back corner, as she had for years before I got there.
It never failed that during our discussions, the voice from the corner would pipe up. Full of wisdom and wit and not a little sass, Mary-Lou shared her insights in a way that always took the conversation up a notch. It was a blessing to benefit from her lively commentary for 18 years. Even as her last year was spent attending Bible class via Zoom, she somehow still managed to sit in the back corner.
It was fitting that her celebration of life was a weenie roast. “If you’re eating for a cause,” she always said, “the calories don’t count.” So, I had an extra hot dog in Mary-Lou’s honor. And next year, I’ll say a prayer for her Razorbacks.