River’s draw lands more than a pastime for life coach

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published January 20, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated January 18, 2013 at 12:12 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Gene Dunaway of Mountain View is a lawyer and has been an activist for the White River. He’s been involved with watershed-protection groups, including Friends of the White River.

When Gene Dunaway wants to enjoy a day on the White River, he doesn’t take much with him — just his boat and his fishing pole, which he rarely uses. It’s just there for show.

“I motor up the river 10 or 12 miles, turn the motor off and float back,” Dunaway said. “I carry a fishing pole so I don’t look like I’m doing nothing.”

For Dunaway, a Little Rock native and longtime Mountain View resident, his time on the river is a spiritual experience.

“I see the beauty of creation in it,” Dunaway said. “There’s so much wildlife on the White River; it’s almost a jungle in parts. It’s such a peaceful environment to me.”

It’s the time he’d spent on the river that spurred Dunaway’s interest in getting involved with watershed-protection groups, including Friends of the White River. Serving as president of the group for five years, Dunaway helped the organization work with residents and government organizations to protect, conserve and restore the White River.

Dunaway first got involved with Friends of the White River after hearing that developers were interested in putting a subdivision on an island in the river, land he’d seen flood many times before. Dunaway joined others in fighting the development, a fight that eventually ended up in federal court.

“I think we all agree that [protecting the river] is something worth doing,” Dunaway said, “or else, what’s the point of living here?”

Dunaway first fell in love with the water after years of summer camps and canoeing as a child in Arkansas. He fell in love with nonprofit work and activism, thanks to his mother.

“Dad was an orthodontist, and Mom was a housewife who was involved with a lot of charities,” Dunaway said. “My sister and I both got our love for helping others from her.”

One of Dunaway’s first jobs while growing up was teaching ballroom dance lessons to kids. His father had been raised as a conservative Baptist and had not been allowed to dance. Later on, he and Dunaway’s mother began taking dance lessons. Dunaway and his sister picked it up, and soon Dunaway was teaching.

After attending Little Rock’s Hall High School, he headed to Hendrix College in Conway where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Following graduation, Dunaway joined what was then known as VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), a domestic anti-poverty service organization that was incorporated into AmeriCorps in the ’90s.

Dunaway and his group headed to work in Louisiana, where they helped found preschool and after-school programs and established a newspaper.

“We tried to help empower the political will of the city,” Dunaway said.

While living and working in Louisiana, Dunaway was surprised by the tension he felt as part of a group of white volunteers in a black-majority community. One night, someone tried to break into the house Dunaway was staying in. He was told by the sheriff that his department couldn’t be responsible for the safety of the VISTA workers if they decided to stay.

“I could not believe something like that could happen in America,” Dunaway said.

Although the organization decided to pull Dunaway and his fellow volunteers out of the area, the experience inspired Dunaway to enter law school with the thought of one day becoming a civil-rights attorney.

By the time Dunaway graduated from law school at the University of Arkansas in 1973, he had once again fallen in love with the country. He remembered going to Mountain View in the late ’60s when the town’s folk-music festivals were drawing crowds of more than 50,000. Dunaway is a musician and really began his guitar playing to relax in law school.

“I’ll never forget seeing a local guy named Booger playing guitar with this big, modern

player,” Dunaway said. “I thought if they could get along, this was the place for me.”

After graduation from law school, Dunaway moved to Mountain View and opened a private law practice. But in a few months time, he was broke. He had assumed he could just open his door, and people would line up for help. But his practice was on a side street.

Dunaway remembers a telling conversation he had with Mountain View lawyer and recently appointed Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Jo Hart.

“She asked why I’d moved there, and said, ‘You know, there’s not much law going on here,’” Dunaway said.

So Dunaway decided to take a corporate job with a new development in a neighboring town. But he soon grew tired of corporate work. He and friends had recently purchased farmland along the White River, and Dunaway was inspired to move back to Mountain View, where he launched a branch of Ozark Legal Services. The organization provided federally funded help for civil lawsuits for people who couldn’t afford it. Dunaway covered a five-county area for eight years until a new calling found him, and Dunaway headed west to San Francisco.

“I became interested in adult personal-development and personal-awareness training — large-group training on how to develop yourself, on living simply, nonmaterialism, sharing and raising awareness,” Dunaway said. “I dealt a lot with the idea of how you look at the world and understanding our perspectives.”

Soon, Dunaway was traveling across the country and around the world to train government organizations, individuals and corporations in the developmental techniques he’d learned. He’s now been in the business for more than 20 years and currently works as a freelance trainer for various companies, traveling mostly to Asia for his work. Dunaway also works as a a personal and corporate life coach through his company Sustainable Strategies Inc. Although he does most of his coaching via Skype, Dunaway finds himself overseas several months a year for his freelance training.

“I’m trying to slow down and enjoy life more and focus on my nonprofit work,” Dunaway said.

Beyond his work with Friends of the White River, Dunaway has served on the board of the Ozark Regional Land Trust, a form of private conservation in which landowners can deed development rights in exchange for tax credits. Dunaway has also worked with groups promoting sustainable forestry practices and helping to preserve heritage seed varieties.

With an increasing focus on sustainability, Dunaway said, he tries to live as simply as possible. Tucked away just behind the city’s police department building, Dunaway’s two-story, Craftsman-style home is filled with furniture he’s collected over the years from family members and kept for the memories. When he’s not traveling for work or throwing the parties he’s become known for in music circles around Mountain View, Dunaway enjoys visiting his sister, Rosemary Dunaway Trible, who lives in Virginia, and seeing his nephew and niece as often as he can.

But at least once a month, Dunaway returns to the river.

“It’s good for me,” he said. “I feel more at peace.”

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Staff Writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or emily@syncweekly.com.

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