Fort Worth school, transit advocate dies of COVID complications
Dennis Dunkins, who focused his career on getting more black students and educators into leadership positions in the Fort Worth School District and also a firm advocate of local transportation, died Tuesday after being hospitalized for COVID-19.
Dunkins, a Fort Worth native, was 80 years old.
The news of Dunkins’ death shocked his relatives and large circle of friends who remembered him not only as a soft-spoken advocate of education in the African American community, but also of his healthy lifestyle. He and his wife of 57 years, Eva Marie Dunkins, were long-time vegetarians who walked at least two miles every day for decades, said his son Dennis Dunkins II.
Dunkins was the founder of the Texas Alliance of Black School Educators, which was formed in 1986 to promote opportunities for African American students and identify challenges for African American teachers and school principals.
While working in the Fort Worth District, Dunkins frequently organized college visits for groups of black students, said Charlece Thomas James, a Fort Worth School District coordinator who has known Dunkins for many years. He only missed these trips this year when the trips were canceled due to the pandemic.
“He was such a giant, just a true giant, though he never acted like he was a giant,” she said. “He had that kind of personality that couldn’t be said no to.”
Dunkins played an important role in developing Fort Worth’s Magnet School program, said Gwendolyn Morrison, an education advisor and board member of Tarrant County College who has known Dunkins since the early 1970s.
She said Dunkins was also instrumental in helping black principals, teachers, and other school administrators find their leadership roles in a newly segregated school system in Fort Worth.
“He has recruited me and other people to take part in this work and accept this work as part of our regular work and responsibilities,” said Morrison.
Dunkins was one of the first African American students to attend North Texas State University, now known as the University of North Texas at Denton. A 2006 oral history interview with Dunkins describing his time on campus focusing on industrial engineering in the 1960s, his work at General Motors, and later his business property is on file in the school library.
He valued his college years – although faced many challenges in social situations where separation was not yet accepted – and dedicated his life to convincing other African American youths to take advantage of their educational opportunities, said Bob Ray Sanders, a historian and former Fort Worth historian Star Telegram columnist.
“He had a powerful voice and a passionate voice, but he was one of those people who didn’t have to scream,” recalled Sanders. “He could do things that needed to be done while other people were yelling at the school board.”
Jeff Davis worked with Dunkins for seven years at Trinity Metro, Fort Worth’s public transportation company, where both men served on the board.
Davis said Dunkins is a tremendous addition to Trinity Metro, also because he’s a frequent bus and train driver who knows the agency’s challenges on the ground.
“He rode the bus and kept talking to people about how we could improve service,” said Davis, chairman of Trinity Metro. “He was determined to improve the East Side Transfer Station. Every time he mentioned the needs we had, he spoke from his heart. “
The Dunkins family members learned to embrace his love for local transportation and passenger trains, said his son Dennis Dunkins II.
For the past several years, Dunkins has organized annual family trips to Chicago on the Amtrak Texas Eagle, which runs daily from Fort Worth.
“He would take our family to ride the Texas Eagle from Fort Worth to Chicago just to see Chicago at Christmas time,” said Dunkins II. “He was a huge fan of the train. He won me over with the train. “
Dunkins and his wife tested positive for the COVID virus a few weeks ago, his son said.
Eva Marie Dunkins, 79, did not get sick and is still symptom-free to this day. But her husband had symptoms and was briefly hospitalized last week.
After returning home, he had symptoms again and was hospitalized again.
The family received good news from the hospital on Monday. Dunkins was breathing well on his own and no longer needed additional oxygen.
But then, surprisingly, Dunkins experienced some kind of lung emergency in the hospital on Tuesday and died, his son said.
The surviving family members of Dunkins include his wife and son: daughters Denise Marie Dunkins and Shanequa Dunkins; Brother Douglas Ray Dunkins; and grandsons Camille, Dennis III and Nathaniel.
Funeral arrangements are pending for the Golden Gate Funeral Home in Fort Worth.
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Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star Telegram in 1997. He’s excited about the hard news coverage. His beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, and business trends. Originally from El Paso, he loves food, football and long car trips.