Alumni Profile


Madam Mayor

After 30 years on the faculty and lifetime helping others,
Pat Dunn starts a new job leading City Hall

By Marion Blackburn

t’s Friday afternoon and Greenville Mayor Pat Dunn ’58 is offering a guest buttered pecans, baked Southern style. Above her hangs an Australian boomerang and a handmade canoe paddle from the Amazon. In her foyer resides a Soviet-era sailor’s hat and belt, complete with vintage hammer-and-sickle buckle.
It’s a fascinating collection that manages to look right at home in her traditional living room, much the same way Dunn brought a global perspective to her health education classes at East Carolina.

Today, after more than 30 years on the health education faculty, Dunn has opened a new chapter in her life as the city’s highest elected official. In her first term she is grappling with divisive issues and some of the rockiest times in a generation. “We have to recognize that Greenville is like everywhere else, and we’re all being affected by the downturn in the economy,” she says. “These are tough times to make a living, tough times to be in public office.”

As mayor she brings a dignified air to city business, keeping order during even the most tense city council meetings, when a firm landing of her gavel is enough to quiet a room. Yet she’s also known for a sense of humor, and her friendly smile warms up ceremonies and ribbon-cuttings. She’s also an animal lover, with a dog named T.J.—as in Thomas Jefferson.

Her experience reaching across cultures allows her to see issues from many sides, a critical skill in her role. “You don’t work in isolation as mayor,” she says. “You try to build support, coalitions and consensus on issues.” A major project she is working on is the planned intermodal transportation center downtown, connecting several forms of public transportation in the heart of Greenville and near the ECU campus.

Her biggest public challenge so far may be helping guide the city to shore during the national economic slump, though she believes Greenville is in good shape to weather the recession. “It is an exciting city to be in, even in tough economic times,” she says. “People here are really interested in making things happen. The School of Dentistry is on go, and the Family Medicine Center is, too. We’re seeing construction in Greenville and Pitt County. Greenville will continue to grow.”

Helping others “is something
my parents did, and it’s a part
of my faith. It’s our responsibility.”

Dunn about everything

For more than 30 years Pat Dunn has volunteered with and led a number of community organizations in Greenville and Pitt County. Here’s a list:

Habitat for Humanity Pitt County chapter, volunteer, board member and former president

State chapter of STRIVE (dedicated to helping individuals find employment), director and chair

Pitt County Coalition to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy, director

Pitt County Community Penalties for the Third Judicial District, advisory board

Pitt County Council on Aging, board of directors, secretary, vice chair and chair

League of Women Voters of Greenville, first vice president, president and local government observer

ReLeaf (promotes trees in Greenville), director and advisory board

Eastern NC Council on Substance Abuse

Immanuel Baptist Church, Sunday school teacher since 1977

Host for international students at ECU Honors

Habitat for Humanity’s Charles V. Horne Jr. Award  

Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award, given by the Black Ministers Conference

Community Service Award from Pitt County Concerned Citizens for Justice  

Best-Irons Humanitarian Award from the City of Greenville  

Outstanding Service, College of Health and Human Performance

Women of Distinction Award, ECU Office of Academic Outreach

ECU Health and Human Performance Leader Award

Citizen of the Year, Civitan Club

Pitt County Council on Aging, Service Award

Seeing ECU change

Dunn grew up in rural Wake County and arrived at East Carolina in 1954 when the campus and its athletic facilities ended at 10th Street and enrollment was less than 3,000. She entered graduate school at the University of Tennessee, receiving a master’s in physical education there in 1959. After receiving another master’s in guidance and counseling from UNC Chapel Hill in 1965, she completed her education with a Ph.D. in health education from Ohio State University in 1972. She had joined the East Carolina faculty a year earlier.

By the time she retired in 2005, the campus had sprouted the Health Sciences Campus and enrollment had surged past 28,000, with athletic teams competing in a national conference. Her original program in health and physical education had evolved into today’s College of Health and Human Performance (CHHP), a research, education and service center. The college now houses the departments of Health Education and Promotion, Exercise and Sport Science and Recreation and Leisure Studies, with degree programs at all levels, including a Ph.D. in bioenergetics.

The city, too, has changed and if the typical Greenville resident once lived on or near a tobacco farm, that’s not true today—the city is the state’s 12th-largest municipality. Myriad nationalities, faiths and backgrounds come and go among the city’s population of roughly 76,000 and Dunn has spent a lifetime reaching out to them.

She previously coordinated international studies at CHHP, and today still works with students from abroad, quietly adding to her distinguished record as an active volunteer with many organizations. She was serving on the board of the Pitt County chapter of Habitat For Humanity when she entered politics in 2001 in a successful bid for a city council seat. She served three terms on the council before running for mayor in 2007. She succeeded Don Parrott ’65, who did not seek another term. She ran for mayor on a crowded ballot with five other candidates, and still polled 49 percent of the vote.

She found her way into politics the same way she found teaching: She enjoys people and believes in service. Her parents were community-oriented folks who used compassion and reason in decision making; she learned from a young age to think about political issues with an eye for humanity.

“My parents cared about others, for the underdog,” she remembers. “My father was always reading about and talking about politics. Rarely did we have discussions that weren’t about politics, and at 18, there was no question that I would register to vote. I’ve been voting ever since.”

While health issues are very personal, they are often based in a larger political and religious culture that also influences food choices, male-female relationship patterns, birth, marriage and death customs. Because of these connections, she developed and taught the course, “Political, Social and Cultural Aspects of Health and Disease.” During the semester, students visited distinctive cultural settings such as a synagogue or mosque to enlarge their understanding.

‘Love thy neighbor’

Mayor Dunn takes personal inspiration from the New Testament commandment to love your neighbor. Reaching out to others, she says, “is something my parents did, and it’s a part of my faith. It’s our responsibility.” As evidence of her conviction, she has nearly 30 years’ experience as a volunteer or board member for a long list of organizations. She is active in the missions council of her church and has taught Sunday school for more than 30 years.

With Habitat for Humanity she has been especially active, volunteering with projects around the world—Korea, Romania, Hungary and Uganda, among others. Here in the United States she has worked in Vermont, Alaska and at an Indian reservation in South Dakota. She also takes part in Friendship Force, welcoming international guests into her home and visiting them in theirs. Her family visits have taken her to Russia, Slovakia, South Africa and El Salvador. Academically, she has been very active internationally as well, making presentations about AIDS at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Helsinki.

Through the years, she’s had plenty of unusual experiences, but she manages to stay unruffled—even when finding herself unexpectedly in a Buddhist temple in South Korea, or on an unplanned detour while driving in Australia. Arriving in bustling (and unfamiliar) Sao Paulo, Brazil—not quite sure where her hotel was—she once asked a helpful nun to hail a cab for her.

When she’s not taking international students grocery shopping, attending official events or presiding over city business, Dunn continues to enjoy the outdoors and is a fan of hiking and canoeing. She swims indoors regularly.

Her long-time friend and research collaborator, Ione Ryan, describes Dunn as loyal, attentive and compassionate. She’s not surprised to see her friend in such a key leadership role; from the start, she’s held a strong commitment to public service.

“When she first came to Greenville on faculty, she promised she would take part in the community,” says Ryan, a professor emerita in the Counseling Center. “She wasn’t going to stay aloof; she was going to contribute and participate. She has certainly lived up to that promise.”