A pillar: Tom Dunnington has been a central figure at Unity Temple, and a source of wisdom, for 45 years.Photos by J. GEIL/Staff Photographer

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 CreateSpace.com.

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.

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