The journey of joys and sorrows

What's it like to be Tom Dunnington? Read on


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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

In the winter of my sorrow,
I remember the summer
of my joy.

Tom Dunnington has known joys and sorrows — plenty of both — and he doesn't shy away from either.

"Remember, this is life too," he tells his loving partner of 27 years, Carol DiMatteo.

Joy and Sorrow
are bites of the same fruit.

You can't miss Dunnington. At 6-feet-4 with a silver ponytail, he stands out. He used to stand straight, but Parkinson's disease has taken its toll the last few years.

But this is life too.

He's had the ponytail since 1965, emblematic of the '60s, when he became interested in Fritz Perls and the human potential movement. He saw a small notice in a newspaper around that time, which read simply, "You matter."

"It influenced my whole life," he recalls. "I wanted my life to matter, but I was disenchanted with formal religion. It wasn't an ego trip. I just wanted to make a difference."

Love is the only thing
strong enough to endure
your rediscovery of self.

Dunnington grew up in Duluth, Minn., the son of Rev. Lewis Leroy Dunnington, a Methodist minister. The family moved to Iowa City, where Tom attended high school, followed by the University of Iowa. He studied at the Herron Institute of Art in Indianapolis and the American Academy of Art in Chicago, then spent his career as a children's book illustrator, most of it with Children's Press.

"Illustrating was sheer joy," he says.

He was married, living in Elmhurst, raising five children and working in his studio, which he describes as a creative disaster area.

Then he spotted another newspaper ad, which asked, "Do you believe what your kids are learning in Sunday School?" Realizing he didn't, he started church shopping and liked what he found at Unity Temple in Oak Park.

"I respected their theology," he says, "or lack of same." Dunnington believes "it's up to each individual to find his way." He describes the Unitarian-Universalist congregation as "a gathering of searchers. I found kindred spirits. It felt like home."

When his family joined in 1965, the average age of the congregation was 57. His five kids doubled the size of the Sunday School. Forty-five years later, the younger population has exploded.

"When I tell people how long I've been there, they look aghast," he says, smiling. "I'm a pillar." He moved to Oak Park 32 years ago.

Dunnington and DiMatteo met at the Temple. Both were interested in kids. Dunnington worked with the junior and senior high kids on Sundays and ran a youth support group (UUYouth) on Wednesdays. For 40 years, he was a counselor at Marwood Dunes, a summer camp for middle school-age kids.

"It's one of the things I'm proudest of," he says.

He twice served as president of the board at Unity Temple and spent 15 years as a pastoral associate. One of his duties was to introduce that portion of the Sunday service known as "Joys and Sorrows." Those in attendance are invited up to the microphone to share something important going on in their lives.

When they finished, Dunnington would often sign off with a reflective couplet.

Love is the creator of our
greatest joy.
Sorrow is its absence.

For the last decade and a half, Dunnington and DiMatteo, both of whom had children with special needs, have been hosting a support group in their home for parents who have that experience in common.

Dunnington loves the group setting. Until Parkinson's slowed him down, he was running a men's group one night a week in eight-week intervals.

"I don't push any belief system," he says. "I recognize the value of their uniqueness." He would tell those who attended, "It's more important to be who you are. It's all you've got."

Everybody's a hero, he tells them. "Our struggles have to do with our own inner being. Many of us want to earn respect, but we lose ourselves in the journey." In a support group, he says, "meaningful sharing of who we are enables us to see each other through a fresh set of eyes. You can be who you are."

DiMatteo describes it as "creating a safe place to share your authenticity."

"You're the only one who can be you," Dunnington tells those who attend. "You can only be a half-assed somebody else."

It is important to recognize the difference between Sorrow thrust upon us

and Sorrow we have chosen.

Dunnington's philosophy of living can be distilled to a triple mantra:

  • Make no judgments
  • Make no comparisons
  • Give up your need to understand.

"Self-acceptance is the hardest thing," Dunnington says. "It allows me to be who I am instead of fulfilling somebody else's expectations. There's always somebody who is faster, thinner or earns more. But nobody else can be you."

He tells his group members, "If I can recognize the hero in you, pat yourself on the back. Don't listen to the dissenters and you'll grow."

The human potential movement of the 1960s was his formative influence.

"People were discovering who they could be," he recalls. He learned there are "no barriers to being who you are, but there is a deep responsibility that goes with that." Unfortunately, he saw too little responsibility and too much ego in the encounter movement, so he left and started down the path that led him to Unity Temple.

"It's about love, growth, responsibility, focusing on others and finding yourself there," he says. "It's an adventure."

Dunnington cautions against "the danger of self-centered theology" and refuses "to define spirituality too tightly." In fact, he describes the conventional view of God as "Santa Claus with PMS."

It is easy to think of
Joys and Sorrows as

punishments or rewards,
as success or failure.

They are neither — they
are milestones in our
life's journey.

Tom Dunnington, 82, has had his share of setbacks. His youngest son, who suffered from bipolar syndrome, committed suicide a few years ago. And Parkinson's has diminished him, but only physically. He uses a walker now and his wisdom gets gummed up in the clogged channel from heart to tongue from time to time — typical symptoms of the disease. So he's thinking of starting a support group on aging.

"Whenever I can't figure something out," he says, "I start a group." In trying to figure things out, he makes a distinction between the need to understand (see aforementioned triple mantra) and "a willingness to understand."

"Show me a man who has all the answers," he says, "and I'll show you a man who needs to be hung."

He still struggles with the death of his son, but finds solace in "enough."

"I've learned to respect that word," he says. "We're good enough. I was a good enough parent."

When Parkinson's seized him, he initially felt a loss of manhood. "Then I realized, 'What do I have to prove?'"

DiMatteo points to Dunnington's large Yin-Yang painting on the living room wall. She says it captures his approach to living: "There are two sides to everything. There is no solution to life, just living it."

"Pain and sorrow," Dunnington says, "get all mixed up with punishment and reward. It's neither. It's just part of your path through life. You can recognize truth even in the middle of a hurricane."

When I examine my
Joys and Sorrows,
I often find wisdom.

When he couldn't paint anymore, he would doodle. That and his "Joys and Sorrows" gig at Sunday services inspired the book of the same title, which he self-published on

The book, which can be purchased at Unity Temple, is dedicated to his father, L.L. Dunnington, and includes one of his father's favorite quotes, "What life means to us is determined not so much by what life brings to us as by the attitude we bring to life."

"Measured by love," his son says, in spite of everything he's gone through, "life is very good, yes."

"Tom is like Unity Temple," says DiMatteo, "a national treasure, showing its age, but worth maintaining. We just don't know about the restoration."

His passion, she says, is connecting with people.

"What is it like to be you?" Dunnington says. "Anyone who asks that question is interesting."

So what is it like to be Tom Dunnington?

"It's a gas," he says, his face lighting up like Christmas.

The journey from
Sorrow back to Joy
always leaves us enriched.


Reader Comments

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Jennifer Mackey from St. Charles  

Posted: March 11th, 2013 4:45 PM

My daughter met Tom at Marwood several years ago. Her experience at Marwood dramatically effected her life in a very positive way. In a large part this is due to Tom and what he brought to the group. He was a remarkable man, loved by many.

Laura Hall-Schordje from Chicago, IL  

Posted: February 25th, 2013 12:22 PM

I was blessed to know Tom and Carol during his time at Bethesda Nursing Home. While his body was failing, his mind and spirit were shining bright and their love for each other was inspiring. I am sorry to say Tom died this past week. But it is obvious his gifts live on in all the people he touched.

Mary O'Toole from Mary  

Posted: February 21st, 2013 7:14 PM

We never know whose lives we touch. Tom, you touched my life and my girls' lives. Thanks.

Tamara Fischer from Wheatfield, IN  

Posted: February 20th, 2013 7:56 PM

I spent time with Tom and Carol during my stays at Marwood. They forever changed my life. I always think of Tom and his voice of comfort. So proud of you both and your journey.

Meredith Griffin Boulet from Palatine, IL  

Posted: February 20th, 2013 1:05 AM

I have known Tom and Carol since I was a teenager@ Marwood. Tom passionately taught me that "I matter!" Those two words have inspired me every day of my life since then. I have spent the past 22 summers working with youth@ Marwood Jr. High Camp. I had the honor of sharing Marwood with Tom and Carol for at least 19 of those years.

Mary Parks from Elmhurst  

Posted: April 23rd, 2012 1:45 PM

Most of us long to make a difference in this world through the way we live our lives and touch others. There are rare people like Tom Dunnington who have done this again and again and again.

George Robbins from Lagrange Illinois (formerly)  

Posted: February 23rd, 2012 1:36 PM

Marwood dunes was great. Do you rmember me?

Marion Cox from Loveland, CO  

Posted: December 21st, 2011 8:02 PM

Tom and Carol have been wonderful influences on both me and my three sons (each of whom thrived at Marwood Camp) and in UT Youth Group. Love you both! Wonderful article!

Sara (Ettinger) Wilcockson from Springfield  

Posted: December 13th, 2011 9:35 AM

Tom is and always will be an inspiration! I spent a couple weeks of summer with Tom and Carol at Marwood and a few Oak Park reunions many many moons ago - and they are forever in my heart. There are some people you meet in life that leave you forever changed - Tom and Carol make that list! I love you both!

Jane Brader from St Louis  

Posted: July 25th, 2011 2:15 PM

Like his father, Tom Dunnington is wise, profound and inspirational! I was a little girl in Iowa City when my parents chose First Methodist Church because of L.L. Dunnington's thoughtful, intelligent sermons. His was a hugely successful ministry, with offerings for all ages. My long spiritual journey began with the teaching of Dr Dunnington and I am thrilled to know his legacy continues with his son Tom.

B. B. from Elmhurst  

Posted: May 15th, 2011 4:31 PM

Things are not always as they seem, are they? In so many ways, this article makes me smile---even laugh out loud!

Tom Dunnington from Oak Park  

Posted: April 5th, 2011 10:56 AM

Dear Ken, Thank you so much for your lovely article. Your expression of sensitivity to my life's journey made me proud to be me. Namaste!

BobO'Connor from River Forest  

Posted: March 29th, 2011 8:52 PM

Tom led Mother Earth Adventures for many years, and brought his special, deep spirit to many. All of the men's groups at UT were started by Tom, as was the annual men's retreat. You're a dear and wonderful man, Tom. Love and thanks!

Shirley from Indian Head Park  

Posted: March 28th, 2011 10:26 AM

Beautiful article, Tom - you (and the writer) have portrayed your depth and humanity. You are indeed our UT (and the world's) treasure! See you Sunday!

john foley from east lansing  

Posted: March 27th, 2011 5:17 PM

When people cpme into your life and change it you notice. when people guild you with words and love you notice. when people care about you not only when things are good but when they are very bad you notice.Tom is the kind of person that noticed me and my life has been blessed by him. I feel so proud and blessed to have had Tom in my life for the last 30 years of my life. He moves me everyday I look at his picture in my truck of him making a funny face with his hair in a mo-hawk.Thank you Tom

Michael from Amsterdam  

Posted: March 26th, 2011 6:29 PM

A touching article about an exceptional, kind and caring human being who spends a lifetime spreading love and understanding among people of all ages that he meets on his path.

Jim Parks from Elmhurst  

Posted: March 26th, 2011 3:21 PM

A great tribute to a great human. It could have been even longer. Thank you for running it. Both my kids count Tom and Carol among their favorite people in the world - which is still a pretty big place. I think they are both exceptional spirits.

Steve Dunnington from Seattle  

Posted: March 26th, 2011 2:44 PM

For those who know the family, Tom did not lose his oldest son to suicide. His youngest son Tim took his own life several years ago.

Steve Kelley from Oak Park  

Posted: March 26th, 2011 1:47 PM

If anyone deserves to have such a flattering portrait painted of his life in essay form it is Tom. To know him is to love him. Steve K.

cathy blanford from western springs  

Posted: March 25th, 2011 11:52 AM

Thank you for this great article which so beautifully portrays this amazing man. May everyone reading it know that s/he is indeed "enough" and bask in the present moment whether it bring joy or sorrow. Love you Tom, and Carol too.


Posted: March 24th, 2011 7:12 PM

Tom and Carol, I love you both.

Jay from Oak Park  

Posted: March 24th, 2011 7:09 PM

What a wonderful job of capturing Tom's messages. He is our spiritual leader (though he would never think of himself that way). Tom is truly an inspiration to all who ever have the pleasure of spending time with him. Love you Tom (and Carol).

David Willard from Oak Park  

Posted: March 24th, 2011 1:51 PM

I am in one of the men's groups that Tom started about 5 years ago. He is a very inspiring man, led me down paths that have made growing into fatherhood (and Unitarian Universalism) a powerful adventure. Love you, Tom !

Meghan Ristau  

Posted: March 24th, 2011 12:13 PM

Tom and Carol helped me through a very difficult point in my life. Their spirit and genuine care was almost overwhelming at times. They both have truly beautiful spirits and are amazing people. Tom, I am saddened to hear the hard times you are facing but know your spirit is shining through. Thank you, both, for caring and making the effort to let every kid know they matter. You certainly matter to me. Namaste.

julie boughton from oak park  

Posted: March 24th, 2011 10:55 AM

Tom and Carol are gifts to those lucky enough to know them. Blessed, selfless neighbors who truly care.


Posted: March 24th, 2011 10:52 AM

Love this. Tom, I think the number of lives you've touched are too many to count. Thanks.

Paula K.  

Posted: March 24th, 2011 10:46 AM

An inspiring article, just like Tom, who is wise and caring. It's always such a pleasure to be in your presence Tom. I feel fortunate to have an opportunity to get to know you (and Carol) better.

Sequoia R.  

Posted: March 24th, 2011 6:46 AM

This is amazing. A lot of the quotes are inspirational!!! I am so glad I got to be a part of the Marwood Experience with Tom!!! It has helped me become who I am today!! Thank you Tom!! I love you!!!

addie m  

Posted: March 23rd, 2011 8:44 PM

Tom Dunnington changed my life in one week with his wisdom and compassion. He is truly one of the most inspiring and extraordinary people I have ever met. Love you Tom.

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