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Jeff Manes: Divergent paths cross after 30-plus years

Valorie Dunn 56 Rensselaer is pictured with Buddy Lab mix. She started college her late 30s works for Franciscan St.

Valorie Dunn, 56, of Rensselaer, is pictured with Buddy, a Lab mix. She started college in her late 30s and works for Franciscan St. Elizabeth Health-Lafayette. | Provided photo

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Updated: October 17, 2012 6:07AM



“Ooh, that smell

Can’t you smell that smell?

Ooh, that smell

The smell of death surrounds you”

— the band Lynyrd Skynyrd

I knew her as Valorie Cady. She was a year ahead of me in school. Before we attended school, Val and I caught tadpoles together and made hamburger patties out of mud.

Today, Valorie Dunn lives a Jay Cutler spiral from where the Chicago Bears once conducted their training camp, near Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer.

Dunn, 56, lives with a Lab mix named Buddy; she is a widow who raised two adult children from her first marriage. She whetted her whistle with a cold can of beer while I interviewed her. It marked the first time we’d seen each other in more than 30 years.

***

“I loved the column you wrote about Ron (Robinson); that had to be a tough one for you,” Dunn began.

Yeah, I miss Ronnie. The mill can be a dangerous place; I was working right next to him and Norm Brown when the fatalities occurred.

“I knew Norm, too. Both were from Lake Village.”

Val, let’s switch gears. I always felt bad for girls your age as far as high school sports. I mean, you just missed it. You were an incredible athlete. I remember when you were in sixth grade high-jumping 5-feet 4-inches and you were only 5-feet 2-inches tall!

“I didn’t even know how to do it right; I kind of scissored over the bar. No one taught me the Fosbury Flop. I did play in a softball league from ages 17 to 30.”

You’re part American Indian.

“Yes, my maternal grandmother was half Sioux. Grandma Brown was the apple of my eye. She passed away the day before I turned 19.”

I remember your grandfather, Walter Brown. He ran the grocery store in Lake Village. Val, your brother, Skip, and I used to take returned pop bottles that he kept behind the store and turn them in so we could have some penny candy. He knew what we were doing and never said a word.

“Grandpa Brown was good-hearted.”

I’ll tell you how good-hearted he was. When my mother was in school, her class was supposed to take a field trip to Washington, D.C. Ma was the only kid who couldn’t go — the fee was $40 per student. Walter Brown got wind of the situation and wrote out a faux grocery tab, knowing my grandparents were good for it. Ma got to go to D.C.

“I didn’t know that.”

Val, our mothers were always close. You know how my mother was into astrology and that kind of stuff. She once told me you had extrasensory perception. Why did she say that?

“I knew when someone was going to die. It started just before my Uncle Ronnie died; I was in eighth grade. It just hit me. I told my mom ... . It was a smell. Honest to God; I could smell death. When Uncle Ronnie died, the smell went away.

“The same thing happened when Brenda McGraw died. I smelled that smell for a week or so before she was killed in that car wreck. I got the smell numerous times after Brenda died. The last time was when my grandma died. I’m glad it doesn’t happen anymore; it kind of creeped me out.”

That is eerie. How long have you lived in Rensselaer?

“About 20 years.”

When did your husband pass?

“This February; Paul was 15 years older than me. Buddy is on Prozac because of Paul not being around.”

Man’s best friend. What did Paul do for a living?

“He was a pressman at the Rensselaer Republican for almost 37 years. That’s where I met him; I was the mail-room supervisor.

“When a new company purchased the newspaper, management called Paul into the office and told him they had evaluated his position and that he was making way too much money and they would have to cut his salary in half.”

Paul’s reaction?

“He told them, ‘Save your money; I’m gone.’ ”

While in your late 30s, you became a college student.

“Yes, I started in August of ’92. It was a rude awakening; in high school, I didn’t study, but always made good grades. Within the first week, I’d shout, ‘I’m quitting!’ Paul would look at me and say: ‘No, you’re not.’ He kept me going. I ended up graduating from St. Elizabeth with honors and graduated cum laude from St. Joe in ’96 with a (grade-point average) of 3.48. Right now, I’m working on my master’s in nursing education; I have about a year to go.”

Good for you, Val.

“I’ve also been invited to be inducted to the Sigma Theta Tau Honor Nursing Society in Minneapolis.”

Impressive. Where do you work?

“Franciscan St. Elizabeth (Health) in Lafayette; I’m the home infusion pharmacy’s therapy coordinator. It’s my job to make sure the home-health hospice nurses are using proper techniques.

“I’m board certified in infusion therapy; it was a very hard test to pass. There are only about 3,400 of us worldwide who are certified.”

Hey, Val, any other childhood memories?

“A few weeks after the Blizzard of ’67, it was around Valentine’s Day, I remember playing baseball in a pair of shorts at Lake Village Elementary with some of the boys like Bob Love, John Bruner, Randy Belt, John Turbyfill and Skip.

“Well, somebody working for the Chicago Sun-Times saw us, turned around, and took pictures of us. Our photo appeared in the Sun-Times because of that.”

***

In May, a Purdue University engineering student was involved in a horrible crash on Interstate 65 near West Lafayette. The young man has no recollection of the events that left him trapped below his vehicle, except that someone talked to him while holding his hand. That good Samaritan was a nurse named Valorie Dunn, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I guess she smelled life that time.

The student, David Rankine, initially was told he’d never walk again, but has since made an amazing recovery. On Sept. 4, Rankine and Dunn reunited. He just wanted to thank the kind soul who watched over him in his time of need.

A plaque hangs on Valorie Dunn’s wall. It reads: “Let it be known that in the recognition of her contributions to family, career and community, Valorie Dunn, RN, BSN, CRNI, is hereby registered as a woman of outstanding leadership by declaration of the executive committee of the International Women’s Leadership Association.”

Not bad for a kid from humble beginnings who had to quit school at 16 because she was with child.

Yes, the diminutive tomboy who waded in the creek near the railroad tracks while catching pollywogs now has adult grandchildren. But let it be known, in her day, Val Cady always hit the cutoff man, and her jumpers were nothin’ but net.

It’s been a long, strange trip for both of us.



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