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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Signmaker Gary Dunn was an artist at his core

BY BILL WILSON
The Wichita Eagle

Drive around Wichita and you can't miss Gary Dunn's legacy.

The signs, literally, of Mr. Dunn's career as a custom sign maker are everywhere around Wichita, Kansas, the United States and beyond: Taco Bell, Rent-A-Center, Dillard's, Residence Inn, Coastal Mart, Best Western and many others.

Mr. Dunn, 70, a member of Wichita's Dunn Signs family, died Monday after a lengthy battle with lung cancer.

Services will be 1 p.m. Monday at the Wichita Scottish Rite, with burial at Wichita Park Cemetery.

At his core, Mr. Dunn was an artist, whether he was crafting a sign from scratch for a customer, restoring classic automobiles or touting the cause of the Midian Shrine and its commitment to children's health care.

Nowhere more so, though, than taking a highly detailed business sign quickly from conception to reality.

Mr. Dunn's professional passion was meeting a customer over lunch or dinner, sketching out a sign on a napkin and then returning to the office to finalize plans.

"He had a mind like a computer," said his wife, Judi. "Those were God-given talents he had."

Beyond business, cars, charities and family were Mr. Dunn's passions. His son-in-law Daniel Kiser and daughter LaDonna remember a "true craftsman" who rebuilt classics to serve as his children's first cars and a skilled businessman who "really enjoyed making a buck."

"He loved to tell you what a good deal he'd made," Daniel Kiser said.

His friend Dave Johnson called Mr. Dunn "one of the most detail-oriented people you could find."

"He was very good at the craft of restoring cars. That was his passion all his life," Johnson said. "He also was a very, very detail-minded person in business and in his personal financial commitment."

Mr. Dunn's imprint is visible on Wichita's Midian Shrine.

With Johnson, a Wichita car dealer, the pair created the Midian Shrine Jeepster Patrol Unit, restoring a team of 1948 to 1950 orange Jeepsters.

"Gary loved that, pulling old, wrecked, decrepit Jeepsters out of farmland, out of garages," Judi said, "cutting out the rust, repairing them, painting them himself to a beautiful orange."

"Gary Dunn was the backbone of that work detail on those Jeepsters," Johnson said. "We both joined the Midian Motor Patrol in 1970 or 1971, and we had the 1966 Honda 150 Dreams that we used to parade.

"Everybody was crashing, so Gary was one of the guys who thought we needed a four-wheel and we should just switch over to the Jeepsters."

So Mr. Dunn and Johnson went on an acquisition binge, turning up 21 of the classic vehicles to rehabilitate at the veteran car dealer's west Wichita home.

Mr. Dunn was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer around Christmas 2007 — serious enough that he was given 45 days to live without treatment and a year with it.

With local oncologist Shaker Dakhil at the Cancer Center of Kansas, Mr. Dunn immediately began chemotherapy.

"He was a miracle patient," Judi Dunn said.

And during that extra time, Mr. Dunn went to work planning and executing his goodbyes, "down to the cost per word on publishing his obituary," Judi said.

Included was a letter he penned Nov. 28, 2009, to Judi, opened by his widow on Wednesday.

"In my eyes, the Lord gave to me the best gift in the whole world when he put you in my life," he wrote. "I am so fantastically lucky.

"Thank you for all the times you had faith in me, stood beside me, hugged me, kissed me and for always making me feel warm and loved. You have a wonderful giving heart like no one I have ever known....

"I am so sorry I have put you through these times of my illness. I know it's been hard on you. Thank you again for being by my side and for all the care you have put forth for me."

"That's Gary," Judi Dunn said. "The most beautiful love letter I could ever receive."

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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