Man About Town: Bob Dunning

Photo of Bob Dunning with arms folded, standing on downtown Davis sidewalk, Varsity Theater, bikes and parked cars in background.
Encounters with Bob Hope, Stephen Colbert and Roy Rogers are among Bob Dunning's memories from his half-century writing for the Davis Enterprise. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

The irony in columnist Bob Dunning’s nearly 50-year career at The Davis Enterprise is that when he applied for a job at the newspaper, he thought he might get hired as a night janitor.

He had just been accepted into UC Davis School of Law and needed to work during non-school hours.

“The editor called me that night and said, ‘We have an opening in sports,’” said Dunning (B.A., political science, ’68, J.D. ’73) who played on the UC Davis men’s tennis team. “I said, ‘Really? Like you have a team?’”

He clarified it was a writing job, and Dunning started as sports editor in 1970. Six years later, Dunning debuted “The Wary I” column.

The daily columns, which are mostly locally focused, can be as funny as they are serious, as touching as they are irreverent — like the time a woman was cited by Davis police for overly loud snoring and called him with the scoop at 2:30 in the morning. She arrived at his house in her bathrobe, young children and citation in hand. The story went national.

His account of a city-built tunnel to encourage toad migration across a busy road attracted the attention of The Daily Show in 1998, which gave him a cameo. [See video below.] He emceed a Bob Hope variety show on campus and wrote the legendary comedian’s jokes. He appeared on Anderson Cooper’s TV show to talk about his column describing whether his family could refrain from spending any money for one month. He emceed a Roy Rogers fundraiser and persuaded the actor to sing his trademark song, “Happy Trails.”

“Those are the kind of memories you’re going to have when you work in a small town for a long time,” said Dunning. “It’s a treasure. All these things happen that you never anticipate. It’s why I try to never say no when somebody asks me to speak or emcee, or just invites [me] to an event.”

Photo: Dunning with Bobby RiggsOn playing tennis against Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs in 1977 for charity:

“I remember as we’re warming up, we’re hitting the balls back and forth with each other, and I had never seen a ball come off a racket as fast as it came off his racket. I had no idea how good this guy was. I was so thrilled to just be a part of this. In the end I finally won, which was a complete bonus. That was a gift from God.”

On running out of ideas:

“I’ve had people at bigger papers say, ‘How do you get five columns [a week] out of that little town?’ I tell them it’s a target-rich environment.”

Photo: Bob Hope talking with a woman while Bob Dunning looks onOn emceeing the Bob Hope show at UC Davis in 1985:

“Most of it was psyching yourself up and saying, ‘You can do this.’ Every part of me wanted to say, ‘No, I can’t do this. It would be too terrifying.’ I knew if I said no I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

On getting his facts straight:

“If you stopped 100 people on the streets of Davis and said, ‘Name the 10 most influential people in Davis,’ every one of those people would name themselves. If you don’t get your facts right, you’ve got people with Ph.D.s behind their names who wrote the book, who are going to write letters to the editor, saying, ‘Who is this yo-yo you have for a columnist?’ You have to choose your words carefully.”

On being an alumnus and a journalist:

“I have a lot of contentious go-rounds with [UC Davis] when they try to keep information from us. I see them as fair game, but fair is the word. I don’t look to make them look bad.”

On 50 years at The Davis Enterprise:

“They’ve always treated me well. During the time I was a single parent they were very understanding. I never made an excuse like I can’t cover that game or I can’t cover that meeting. As long as I did the job well, they didn’t say, ‘We need to see you from 8 to 5 every day.’ That gave me the freedom to raise my family and to enjoy life, which makes the column a whole lot better.”

— Joanna Corman wrote this article for UC Davis Magazine

"Tunnel Vision," The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, rebroadcast on April 27, 1999