by Gina Stafford
Born in Mississippi, trained as a dentist and elected Tennessee’s first Republican governor in 50 years, Winfield Dunn (HSC ’55) says his unlikely adventure in politics began with some naivete and ended as “an amazing education.”
Dunn was elected in 1970, and his was the last election in which a Tennessee governor was barred from seeking a consecutive second term.
“What characterized my experience as governor for better or for worse, since I wasn’t steeped in any political tradition because I had had no experience in the Legislature, was that I came in without any biases, other than a little political partisanship,” Dunn says. “I had only one thing in mind, and that was doing the best I could. I didn’t worry about anything because I couldn’t run for any other office.”
Dunn’s election came in the same year Andy Holt stepped down as president of the University of Tennessee System, which had been formally created just two years earlier. Holt was succeeded by Ed Boling, who installed Joe Johnson as his executive assistant and right-hand man.
As a graduate of the UT College of Dentistry, Dunn already knew firsthand of his alma mater’s impact in providing indigent dental care, severely reduced-cost care and producing 70 percent of the dentists practicing in Tennessee. He was and remains proud of that impact.
Because he knew less about state-funded undergraduate universities, he commissioned a study to assess needs and available resources. The study resulted in creation of the Tennessee Board of Regents.
“I heard a great deal from the University of Tennessee at Martin, as I should have, but there was an inordinate amount of political activity through the Board of Regents that was carried on by the presidents of the various campuses,” Dunn says. “I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing much about that from the University of Tennessee, but I know it was clearly there. I think there was just a little more sophistication on the part of Ed (Boling) and Joe (Johnson).”
Prior to being elected governor, the little Dunn knew about UT Knoxville came mostly from it being a member of the Southeastern Conference, along with his undergrad alma mater, Ole Miss. That began to change with a trip to Neyland Stadium in the short window between election and Dunn’s inauguration.
“I was taken to Knoxville for a football game—I’m not sure the opponent—and I had the company of state troopers because, by then, I was the governor-elect. They told me to come down to the sidelines, with less than five minutes to play, and Tennessee won the game. The teams trotted off the field, and I was told to follow my state trooper. He led me to a small room, and it was filled with sweaty football players.
“Coach (Bill) Battle was giving accolades to the men who had played well, and he was giving them footballs. I’m standing out to the side, just watching and being thrilled. Suddenly, he said, ‘Men, we’ve got a new player on our team,’ and he pitched me a football. That was a very moving experience, and that’s when my blood, I think, changed from red to orange,” Dunn said.
Forty years later, Dunn was recruited to another UT team. The call came in 2010 from UT President Emeritus Joe Johnson, and the task was raising money to renovate the UT College of Dentistry building that bears Dunn’s name.
“It was very rejuvenating, and I was happy to respond to Joe’s call to be honorary fundraising chair because, over the years, I had become somewhat isolated from the dental profession,” Dunn says. “And, rather than be only honorary, I just plunged in—I really did—and there were two real highlights for me.”
One was securing $500,000 from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. The other involved the former governor’s return to the state Legislature. “I got directly before the education committee, and I said, ‘Gentlemen, with all due respect to the lawyers, the accountants, the engineers, the business people—what could possibly be more important, in terms of education, than preparing the people who are going to treat our children and our grandchildren?’
“That got us a million dollars, and it was the first time, I think, that the Legislature had ever specifically appropriated money directly to the University of Tennessee College of Dentistry,” Dunn says. “I was very proud of that. I was proud to be able to help.”