The Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge
Those who never knew Bob Dunning might wonder why a bridge is being named to honor a carpenter who lived happily, but quietly in a small Maine town.
That question will be “the most wonderful thing” about the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge at Bridgton’s new Pondicherry Park, says Sally Dunning, Bob’s wife of 33 years. As long as that question is asked, the answer will show how one person can change a community for the better.
“It’s the people who loved him who will be working on the bridge,” Sally Dunning says. “It’s the people who loved him who are working on the financing to make it possible. I think it’s the rippling out of the stone in the pond.”
Hundreds attended his memorial service, after Bob Dunning died of a heart attack on Nov. 23 at age 57. Now people are donating money, supplies, and labor for a bridge to honor his commitment to the community, his love of the outdoors and his determination to preserve the environment. As George Bradt wrote in the Bridgton News when Dunning died, “Just because Bob no longer walks among us is no reason to forget his mission or ignore his advocacy. We’d be selling ourselves short if we do.”
What makes Bob Dunning’s story unusual aren’t the facts of his life, but the spirit with which he lived it. He and Sally moved to Bridgton from Pennsylvania in 1975. He specialized in renovating old buildings and Sally works as a maternity nurse at Bridgton Hospital. They raised two children, Jessie and Dan. Bob was involved in many organizations, projects, campaigns and issues, but his impact also was very personal.
His friends at the Rufus Porter Museum, where he served as vice president, summed up Bob’s legacy in a newspaper ad after his death. “Bob Dunning helped everyone. Few people in this town and for miles around have not experienced his kindness, thoughtfulness and generosity – either directly or through the things he did to make community life better for us all.”
The idea of naming the gateway bridge to Pondicherry Park in Bob’s honor came to his friend Deborah Heffernan the day after his death. She and her husband Jack have been deeply involved in the campaign to create the new 59-acre park in the center of Bridgton. There are woods, wetlands, pastures, rock walls and 5,000 feet of stream frontage. There’s Kneeland Spring, with waters as clear and clean as in the 19th century, when local doctors and residents bought them for 50 cents a carboy (a Persian word meaning large bottle) or $1.25 a barrel. The Lakes Environmental Association, Loon Echo Land Trust, foundations, civic organizations, more than 250 individual donors and the Town of Bridgton have all worked together to establish Pondicherry Park.
As Deborah Heffernan struggled with her grief and her desire to express it in a tangible way, she realized the bridge “seemed to embrace all aspects of Bob’s life.”
“He was a bridge to so many people,” Heffernan says. “He was a builder, but he was also an artist. When he’d come together with people, magic would happen. There was the magic of building something together and there was the magic of Bob Dunning. Anyone who worked with him had the experience of cooperative creation.”
His friends and fellow craftsmen, Andy Buck, Henry Banks, Greg Marston and Eve Abreau, designed a covered bridge, because Bob treasured the old ways of building. If fundraising goes well, the pilings for the Dunning Bridge will be poured this fall and construction will begin next spring. (Donations to the Dunning Memorial Bridge are welcomed at Loon Echo Land Trust, Pondicherry Park Fund, Memo: Dunning Bridge, 1 Chase Street, Bridgton Maine 04009, and can also be made at www.pondicherrypark.org.)
Bob, who would have celebrated his 58th birthday on Aug. 15, would be amazed at his impact on the town and the people he loved, his wife says. It’s the kind of bridge he’d have very much enjoyed building, though he might have been hesitant to see his name on it because he preferred to work quietly in the background. But he would have been very happy to see a bridge and a park unite his community and honor the values to which he devoted his life.
“The wonderful thing about the bridge is it will make people think: Who was this Bob Dunning? Why is this man being honored?” Sally Dunning says. “I’m pleased and just proud that they will think of him that way.”
Roberta Scruggs writes about Maine's environment.