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Bar News - March 22, 2017

Practitioner Profile: World Stage, Local Stage: Dunnington Has Graced Both


Dover attorney Tom Dunnington has played the part of Drosselmeyer in the staging of “The Nutcracker” for the past 30 years. Here, he poses with a portrait of Daniel Webster.

You could say Tom Dunnington is an accidental attorney – but only if you count yourself among those who don’t believe in life’s fateful twists and turns.

If you ask Dunnington, he will tell you how fate led him back to the place where he was born, doing what he was meant to do – everything from marathon man and dedicated guardian ad litem for Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of New Hampshire, to being New Hampshire’s longest-running Drosselmeyer in New Hampshire holiday “Nutcracker” performance history.

“I grew up in the hardware business. My dad owned Seavey Hardware in Dover, which he sold before he died. I saw how hard he worked, and I wasn’t interested in doing that,” says Dunnington.

His dream career was to work for the US State Department. That’s why, after graduating from the University of New Hampshire in 1964, he entered the Peace Corps. And, after completing his deployment to Nigeria, he headed straight to Washington, DC, where he thought all his dreams would come true.

“I took a job as a social science research analyst, for the Department of Commerce. This was the late 1960s, and I got very depressed working in Washington,” he says.

It wasn’t the job; it was the times.

“I lived near the Pentagon during the riots that happened when Dr. King was assassinated, and my former roommate from the Peace Corps worked at the White House. Tom was black and went to Howard University. He lived in the downtown, and I could see from my window all the smoke rising above the city. Washington was burning,” says Dunnington. “I asked him if he and his wife wanted to come stay with Barbara and I until things quieted down. He told me he was afraid to leave his apartment. It was really a depressing situation.”

Dunnington continued pursuing his dream, passed his Foreign Service exam, and finally got the interview with the State Department that would change his life, but not in the way he expected.

“They said they wanted me to work in world development. They’d pay me lots of money and my life would be good,” he says.

Only they wanted to send him to Vietnam as part of the Rural Pacification Program.

“I said, ‘Isn’t that where they’re shooting Americans?’ They said if I didn’t accept the assignment, I’d never work for the State Department. So, I said, I guess I’d better find something else to do.”

Dunnington instead settled into a social science job gathering criminalization statistics from around the country, and was eventually assigned to work for prominent human rights attorney Ramsey Clark, who served as U.S. Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson.

“I spent four days with him, basically carrying his books around. But I was so inspired by him. Chatting over coffee, he talked with me about the law and why he got into the profession. I came home to my little apartment in Arlington that day and told my wife, who was six-months pregnant at the time, that I was going to quit my job and go to law school. She gave me a funny look. We ended up having a long talk about it, and she finally saw I was quite serious,” says Dunnington. “So, I quit my job and relocated to the Boston area to attend Suffolk University Law School. I absolutely loved it.”

Dunnington knew he wanted to be a small-town attorney. With strong roots in Dover, it was the right place at the right time.

“I tell people all the time, that you think you plan your life out, but you don’t; you respond to whatever’s happening,” says Dunnington. “I met my wife in the wilds of Africa. She was a Canadian who didn’t like Americans when I met her. But we fell in love anyway.”

And 48 years later, he and his wife, Barbara, continue to celebrate the community in which they live and work, which includes an indelible influence on the local arts community.

“I graduated from UNH with a degree in political science and a minor in history and foreign relations, but I always did theater work at UNH as a volunteer – I was fascinated by the technical part of theater, building sets and running lights and sound systems. I fell in love with it,” Dunnington says.

Once back in Dover, he and his wife attended a showing of “Fiddler on the Roof” staged by the Garrison Players, who were performing in Dover back then.

“Our neighbor was selling tickets for the show, so we went and I was bowled over by the quality of the show, and how amazing it was this community theater troupe could put on such a professional show. The next year they were doing ‘Camelot,’ and Barbara wanted to try out for the chorus. She asked me to tag along since she didn’t know anyone in the organization. My friend Bob Ellis happened to be there – we’d sung together in the UNH glee club, and he asked me if I was going to try out for a part. Of course being a big-time lawyer – with 18 months under my belt – I was too important in my profession to waste my time in theater,” says Dunnington, with a laugh.

“So, he asked me to work on the set, and I said yes,” he adds, noting that he was quickly elevated to being in charge of set design, which is often the case in a community theater setting. “The least little bit of interest generally gets you promoted to a responsible position in no time flat,” he says.

The next show was “Pajama Game,” and his friend again asked him to try out for the show. He did, and was offered the lead role.

“Next thing I know, I was on stage,” says Dunnington. He’s never looked back.

“It’s a lonely profession, sometimes, being a sole proprietor. You try to think of new and inventive ways to present a case to court, but I think it was the collaborative effort [in the theater work] that appealed to me most. Once you’re in front of an audience, you perk right up. I’ve been with the Garrison Players now since 1972, and my wife and I have been very involved for all those years,” says Dunnington.

Their volunteerism goes beyond the footlights, as the Dunningtons are known for their philanthropy, spearheading the purchase on behalf of the Garrison Players board for an art center in Rollinsford, the Garrison Players Arts Center, that continues to be a premier outlet for the lively arts.

His debut as Drosselmeyer began with his daughter, Jenny, who was a ballet dancer. He helped her instructor, then UNH ballet professor Larry Robinson, launch Seacoast Ballet Company, and they staged the second act of “The Nutcracker.”

“It went so well that they wanted to do the entire production the next year, which includes the party scene – which is where the magic happens. He asked me to be Drosselmeyer, and I said okay, and I absolutely fell in love with it. I did it for the next 18 years with Seacoast,” says Dunnington.

After Jenny moved on, Dunnington told himself he’d stay for “just one more year,” but it has been an impossible habit for him to break. Even after Seacoast Ballet Company folded, his “contract” as Drosselmeyer was continued with the New England Dance Ensemble in Nashua, which went on for a few years before he picked up the gig with Sole City Dance at the Rochester Opera House.

“I wanted to do the show here because I knew people at the Opera House, and had taken dance lessons there. Lo and behold, I did my 30th year as Drosselmeyer last year, and I still love it – and as an actor, I don’t have any lines to remember,” he says.

He was gratified that his five grandchildren got to see him on stage as Drosselmeyer for the first time in 2016. If there’s an end in sight, he doesn’t see it yet.

“There was a guy I heard about somewhere in the Midwest who did 37 years of Drosselmeyer. It would be nice to eclipse him,” Dunnington says.

But he is also a realist. At 75, he’s pulled back a little on his practice. He still handles prosecution cases for Durham and Somersworth. And he relishes his work as a certified guardian ad litem for CASA NH.

“My practice was about 70 percent marital stuff, and it was actually affecting my health. You find yourself worrying about these cases, especially in a divorce situation, where people wanted me to do things – not illegal things, but things I felt just weren’t right. That’s when I started focusing on the GAL work. That’s where my heart is, with the kids, because that’s who gets hurt in these situations. As an attorney, I find it more worthwhile to be involved to try and make things as right as you can for the kids. That keeps me busy, along with some probate and estate planning.”

Like reprising old Drosselmeyer year after year, the incentive to stay active and keep working at his practice is strong.

“I’ve been a marathon runner for so many years. I have two sons, and the last couple of years, we’ve run races together. It used to be that I could beat them. Not anymore. I accept that my body doesn’t want to run anymore, and although I miss it, it keeps me interested in working and staying active with the theater,” says Dunnington.

He says the winding down part of life is hard to accept, for some people, but having lived an unexpected yet fulfilling life, he still wakes up every day looking forward to whatever comes next.

“My life path led me to where I needed to be,” says Dunnington. “No regrets.”

Carol Robidoux is a freelance writer based in Manchester.

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