Tribute to Jeanne Dunn (June 16, 1925-September 16, 2009)
By Gregory A. Prince
I wasn’t sure what to think of Jeanne Dunn the first time I met her. In 1995, Bob Wright, my co-author of the David O. McKay biography, accompanied me on a visit to the Dunn’s home in Highland, Utah, where we recorded the first of what became several interviews of her husband Paul, concerning his experiences in the McKay administration. Paul was still smarting from the treatment he had received several years earlier following allegations that he had embellished stories that he told from the pulpit—allegations that his fellow General Authority, Robert Simpson, later placed into perspective for me: “We tell these stories, and we embellish them here and there. I’ve been guilty of it, and I know other Brethren have, because I’ve known the true facts of the story. I’ve heard every—well, I can’t say every one, but so many of the Brethren have. When you’re out motivating people and trying to put a point across, why that’s what happens. I find no fault with it.” Jeanne, in turn, seemed both reserved and a bit suspicious upon being introduced to us by Paul, perhaps wondering if we had an ulterior motive in interviewing her husband.
Several months later we returned for another interview, and Jeanne’s demeanor was noticeably warmer, a trend that continued during subsequent visits. After two years and five interviews, during which Paul gave invaluable information on how the Church functioned during the McKay years, he told me that he had been approached by a dozen people who wanted to write his biography, “but Jeanne and I are not comfortable with any of them. We are, however, comfortable with you, and would like you to consider writing my biography.”
For the following year—Paul died one year, to the day, after making the request that I be his biographer—I had frequent and intimate contact with Paul and Jeanne, staying in their home on three occasions as I interviewed them, their family and their friends; and having them stay with us in Maryland for a week, less than three months before his death. I came to know Jeanne well, and I counted her as a valued friend.
Jeanne Cheverton Dunn was not the typical spouse of a General Authority, and therein was much of the reason that her husband was not the typical General Authority. While Paul was a lifelong member of the Church, Jeanne converted to Mormonism as a result of him. She was raised in the Disciples of Christ tradition, which was founded by Alexander Campbell and which produced two highly influential early converts to Mormonism, Sidney Rigdon and Edward Partridge. Her father, Dr. Cecil Cheverton, was a national officer of the Disciples of Christ, a respected and published biblical scholar, and president of Chapman College in California. Jeanne’s conversion to Mormonism thus carried implications that few other conversions carried, and yet the fact that her father and Paul remained the closest of friends for the rest of his life speaks both for Paul’s character, and for Jeanne’s ability to embrace a new faith without severing crucial ties to the old. Dr. Cheverton, rather than Paul’s LDS bishop, performed their marriage ceremony, not long after Paul returned from military service in World War II. Paul told me that he would not be surprised if, upon arriving at the Gates of Heaven, he were to be greeted by Dr. Cheverton, who would say, “Welcome, Paul. Let me show you around this place.”
The influence of Jeanne and her father on Paul was enormous and permanent. When a torn rotator cuff ended a promising professional baseball career at the minor league phase, Paul enrolled in Chapman College, eventually becoming the only LDS General Authority ever to obtain a college degree (bachelor’s) in biblical studies. The Cheverton influence on Paul, both from Dr. Cheverton and from Jeanne, was clear. Paul’s mind was expansive and his worldview was inclusive, qualities often lacking in his colleagues. Jeanne was raised to know the bible, while Paul came to appreciate it later in life and largely through Jeanne and her father. Jeanne understood the scriptures expansively, without ever resorting to prooftexting. There was never a question about the totality of her conversion to Mormonism, and yet she gave it a different, and altogether refreshing flavor.
Jesus instructed his disciples to be in the world, but not of the world, and Jeanne took his words to heart. Her world did not contain walls, a sharp contrast to so many of her fellow Latter-day Saints who choose not to be in the world, instead cloistering themselves in the Great Basin, or in self-constructed microcosms of the Great Basin throughout the world. Her gospel, like that of her husband, was expansive, inclusive, relevant and refreshing. We are the poorer not only for her passing, but also for the paucity of members of this church who share her worldview.