My tribute to the glorious Ms. Dianna Denton. Given on May 19th to a sea of friends, family, and former students. I love you, sweet lady.
Wow! Look at us! Look at you! Look at this!
This is proof that love creates a sacred gravity. Its pull is undeniable. Love is the force that brought us all here. Or more specifically, Ms. D’s love for us and our love for her drew us together today. She may be the one and only extraordinary thing we all have in common.
My name is Jim Gunnell and as divine fate would have it, Ms. D was my teacher and conspirator of all things good my 9th and 10th grade years. I was also blessed to be one of many drama students that circled in an orbit around her. Those were the days.
Ms. D was this fabulous, vivacious, 30-something wonder woman. She had the fire of Miss Ann Margaret with the softness of Miss Audrey Hepburn and the sassiness of Miss Katharine Hepburn. I loved her and she loved me.
When I was on stage, Ms. D would do her best to stay calm and coach me. In all honesty, I was an awful actor. I had trouble remembering my lines or where I was supposed to stand. Inevitably I would wind up standing in front of “the star” who would take grave umbrage at my unintentional upstaging and general ignorance regarding blocking and stage direction.
I had very little rhythm back in those days—and even less now. I couldn’t dance without counting my steps, and I couldn’t count without moving my lips. Ann Margaret would patiently coach me from the front row. “Don’t look at your feet, Jim. Don’t look at your feet.”
“Sorry, 2, 3, 4…”, I’d yell back……..while looking at my feet. It was a short dance I had to perform in Calamity Jane. I played Francis Fryer—Francis with an “i” pretending to be Frances with an “e”. I was definitely type cast. If you haven’t seen Calamity Jane, it’s a pretty simple plot line. Boy meets girl…meets drag queen.
Calamity Jane sang a beautiful song titled, “Secret Love”. It was my favorite song in the musical, and said the very things that were on my mind at that time in my life. Here’s a snippet of it.
Once I had a secret love
Deep within the heart of me.
All too soon my secret love
Became impatient to be free.
Now I shout it from the highest hills.
Even told the golden daffodils.
At last my heart’s an open door.
And my secret love’s no secret anymore.
But my love was a secret, and looking back on it now, I’m fairly certain that Ms. D knew. When I sang this song in my car at the top of my lungs, I was singing it to the hot exchange student from Germany…his name was Kurt. Ms. D knew me better than I knew myself. It was one of her superpowers.
I believe one of Ms. D’s grand purposes in life was to help each of us awaken to the reality of our authentic greatness. Let me say that one more time. Ms. D created opportunities that allowed each one of us to wake up and realize the greatness that was within us. She believed in us that much. She knew us that well because she saw us, she heard us, and she valued us as priceless. She helped us discover who we really were and encouraged us to become the best version of that person we could become.
It was September 1979, and I remember driving my car as fast as I could toward college—watching my past get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. I was leaving behind a house full of dysfunction, not knowing at what point the chaos would reach a critical mass and become too great for the used brick walls to contain. My escape enhanced the sweetness of my first year of college. It was a grand adventure. I was in theater, choir, and coffeehouse events on campus…thank you, Ms. D.
In 1980, during my first summer home from college, I worked at the Oak Hills Country Club (the OHCC) in DeWitt. Earlier that Spring I had secured a job as lifeguard and swim teacher. I had joined the swim team my first year of college. Having never swum competitively before, I struggled. My stroke was awkward and regardless of how hard I tried, I hit my oncoming teammates in the face every time they swam by. There must have been a team meeting to decide if they would rather be crowded into fewer lanes or be hit in the face every lap. They chose to create a separate lane for beginner swimmers. But they did it in such a nice way that I felt only mildly outcast.
Landing the job at the OHCC was when I first began to respect the power of favoritism. Miss Ann Margaret was the pool manager. “What?” you say. Yes. Fiery Miss Ann Margaret in a bikini.
Throughout the swim season at college, I had become accustomed to the lighter side of swimwear. In September when I showed up for the first swim practice wearing trunks, the faces of the other swimmers resembled that emoticon that has the big round eyes. You know the one? The coach was very understanding of my country boy innocence. I soon got a Speedo that took me months to get used to wearing—for various reasons.
I planned to return to the swim team in the fall, and I was determined that I wouldn’t show up with a farmer’s tan. A farmer’s tan screams ,“Boy, you are country as hell!” If I could swim all year in a Speedo at college, then why couldn’t I swim in a Speedo at the OHCC? Had I been in my right mind, I could have come up with at least ten good reasons—two of which were named Bubba. Did I dare? What would the “members” say? Would they judge me? Would they convene a special meeting of the Board to determine how to approach “the talk” with me?
In my head I heard,
Now, Jim. We understand that you’ve been off at that highfalutin school, but they go about things a little different than we do down here. At the OHCC we pride ourselves on modesty and decorum. We just can’t let you go traipsing around wearing that banana hammock. Do you understand?
I only worried about this briefly because Ms. D had my back. She was my boss and gave me permission to don the swimwear of my choice.
You might be sitting there asking yourself, “Now why the hell did he tell us that story?” Well, one…it was pretty funny. And two…once again Ms. D made me feel seen, heard and valued. Can you imagine how important that was to me? Forty years later I am a combination of a lifetime of experiences. As insignificant as it might appear to an outside observer, Ms. D leaving the choice of swimwear up to me was a lesson in courage for both of us.
Ms. D inspired my journey. Her love and belief in me increased my trajectory. Her courage to force me from the edge allowed me to discover my amazing ability to fly. She left a glorious trail of joy behind. And she would want each one of us to reach for others’ hands and create a trail of joy with them…amplifying love as she did for us.
And finally, to you, Ms. D.–
I believe in miracles. I know they sometimes come simply and silently. They don’t always enter with trumpets and fanfare. Sometimes they tiptoe in. Some miracles are common—unpretentious; in brown paper sacks and in stumbles and falls. Sometimes they take the form of a sweet, tenderly tenacious blonde-haired teacher whose favorite color was pink and whose smile lit the darkest corners of so many souls.We wander about this terrestrial blueness without realizing that we stand beneath a heaven that is sending us miracles from a treasure chest entrusted to us at birth.
We see the rain but don’t want to feel it; oftentimes protecting ourselves from the wetness.
Then, without warning, amidst our walk, loss trips us. And we fall face first in the puddles. And we wake up wondering why we missed the rainbows.
But not with you, sweet lady. You taught us how to soak up the showers like a sponge–and play like children with wild abandon. You put us in the spotlight.
Hearing of your passing tripped me, but I can say that 40 years haven’t weakened the gravity of your love. I had a blast in the rain and under the rainbows and in the light of center stage. I still look at my feet when I dance, but I’m not afraid to dance.
On behalf of the thousands of young souls you shared your light and love with, thank you for our brief but joyous dance. I will see you in a while…and you and I will dance somewhere over the rainbow.
I love you…
[blow a kiss to heaven]
[exit stage right]