Mike Dunn has never been able to shake Salisbury. The foils of the Brain Drain never got through his defenses and derailed him from being a part of his hometown.
Wicomico High School graduate and soccer standout with his brother, Bobby, he graduated from Salisbury University, worked for a few years as a news reporter for WBOC- TV, then delved into pharmaceutical sales – living for a time in the Baltimore area.
Like a lot of others, Dunn came home and escalated his community involvement year by year. He has been a major figure in the community’s cancer awareness Relay For Life fundraiser. He served a term as City Council president. He served as the chief fundraiser of Delmarva Public Radio and worked as that operation’s acting general manager during a period of difficult transitions.
He is a fervent fan of the Salisbury University men’s lacrosse program.
After leaving city government service, Dunn stayed immersed in community causes, spearheading the triumphantly successful “Red, White and Boom.” He now serves on the Board of Directors for Coastal Hospice, and sits on a community grants review committee for the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore. He also served four years on the Board of the Salisbury-Wicomico Arts Council.
In January, Dunn created OneSalisbury.com, a website providing positive commentary on the people, places and things that make Salisbury tick.
Q. This is the third year now of Red, White and Boom. How is it going?
A. Well, I’m not objective (smiling), but I’d say it’s going fantastically.
On every level, Red White and Boom has done exactly what I hoped it would do – which is, basically, to bring free community fireworks back to our city. About 10,000 people each year come and watch in that two mile radius around Salisbury University – on lawn chairs along Eastern Shore Drive, from the parking lots of the businesses along Route 13, from James M. Bennett High School, from Asbury Church, from the Super Fresh parking lot – from wherever you can park your car and look up.
Q. Did you ever think it would be such a success?
A.There was never a doubt in my mind that Red White and Boom would succeed. I say that NOT because of me or my involvement. I say it because this community has a history of responding and supporting good causes.
And for many, many years, fireworks in Salisbury was one of those good causes. It was just waiting for a jump start back to viability. The community feedback has been overwhelming.
In three years, with me basically doing a one man fundraising campaign, we have raised more than $75,000. The individuals and businesses, the organizations and foundations – what I like to call the backbone of this town – have supported Red White and Boom tremendously.
The media – Salisbury Independent included – have always been so supportive as well.
Q. Any changes this time around?
A. The event this year has four significant changes. The first is the launch site. It’s moved about 200 yards away from the last two years. The track of the Bennett Middle School is ground zero if you will.
And the vendors will now be located near the entrance to JMB High School – so bring your blanket and lawn chairs to the home of the Clippers.
A great big thank you to the Wicomico County Board of Education for making this happen.
SU is building its new tennis courts at our old launch site. But, they’re still involved, making most of the campus still available for spectators, like in the first two years – so parking and viewing areas abound.
Second, we have a permanent endowment fund set up at the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore. Long-term sustainability is the key to Red White and Boom’s success. And now, anyone can contribute to sustaining us. All donations, in any amount, are being accepted. Checks are made payable to, and mailed to CFES.
Third, we have the city of Salisbury on board as a financial partner, and the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce on board as a sponsor. That’s huge.
fourth, we have CFES, the Arthur W. Perdue Foundation, and the Richard A. Henson Foundation as contributors. Each has made multi-year, $2,500 commitments.
It’s just amazing all of the support!
Q. The Salisbury Jaycees had operated the fireworks for decades, but the event seemed to move around a lot and couldn’t get support. How did you manage to change that?
A. Well, much like launching a brand new newspaper, you just make up your mind to do it, and then you make it happen.
Look, we hadn’t had free community fireworks in six years. Salisbury’s families were heading to places like Snow Hill and Willards and Ocean City to see Fourth of July fireworks. It was unacceptable that the largest city on the Eastern Shore, the leading city on the Eastern Shore, didn’t have fireworks.
So, one day in the summer of 2011, I had an idea: I turned to my wife Karen, while we were headed to Assateague for the day, and told her I was going to bring fireworks back to Salisbury the next summer.
She looked at me like I had two heads, and said: “Well how are you going to do that?” Truth is, I had no idea, but I was confident that I could make it happen.
So, a few days after the thought came in my head, I placed my first phone call – to my friend Bill Gordy. I needed some knowledge about fireworks and fire companies, and I wanted to pick his brain.
When I hung up with Bill, he’d committed to being my logistics chair, and Red White and Boom’s first contributor. With that kind of help, I knew we were on our way.
Q. What’s been the biggest surprise related to the event?
A. How wonderfully accepting everyone has been to the idea. And how generous. And how, collectively, everyone has made planning and coordinating the event so seamless.
A great surprise came on the day of the event, two years ago – our launch day, if you will. It was mid-day, and we had just met with the Salisbury Fire Department to go over last-minute details. My cell phone rang.
It was Mayor Ireton. He was calling to make sure that I had, that we had, everything we needed from the city. He wanted to know if there was anything else he or the city could do in preparation for that night.
The symbolic significance of that call – knowing that the city had our back – was proof positive that this event was going to succeed.
Q. How does this event touch people?
A. THE best Red White and Boom story EVER occurred last year.
While setting up the morning of the 4th, a car approached us at SU. The driver of the car was Ryan Nelson. He’s the son of a neighbor of mine.
Ryan wanted to introduce me to his son, David, who was strapped into his car seat in the back seat. Ryan said David had something to give me.
So, I went to his window – and what did David give me? The 5 dollars that he’d earned helping his dad in the yard the day before. David wanted to donate his hard earned money to the fireworks.
Talk about a moment that I’ll never forget … it’s moments like that let you know that it’s all worth it.
Q. Where do you get your drive to serve the community?
A. Well, I had a front-row seat to community involvement as a kid. My parents and their peers were heavily involved in the Salisbury Jaycees.
It seems to me those people were into everything – from the old professional tennis tournament that was held at the old Civic Center, to the fireworks, to the Christmas parade. My mom was a secretary for Henry Parker, when he was planning the Wicomico County Centennial Celebration in 1967.
Former Mayor Frank Morris went to my church. Former State Sen. Joe Long coached while I was in Pony League. Former Mayor Paul Martin’s kids, and Sam Seidel’s kids were all Wi-Hi folks like me.
My mother was on stage in Community Players’ productions with people like Sue Hess. My father worked for a time for Bill Ahtes.
And then, while working as a WBOC reporter for a few years, I got to know people like Frank Perdue and Richard Henson. So, obviously, I was impacted.
I saw community service as a given. I think small towns like Salisbury get their rhythm when people get involved. It’s our spirit. It’s what makes us unique.
Q. How would you inspire others to follow your lead?
A. Well, I would tell them very simply – get involved. It’s not enough to just be shuffling your kids to and from practices and games and recitals. All of that is important, for sure. But, for towns like us to thrive, we need to be selfless on occasion.
There’s a whole group of young professionals in town who are leading by example – Jamie Heater, Joey Gilkerson, Brad Gillis, Jake Day, Matt Holloway, Scott Malone, Kim Hudson. They get it.
Look to them for inspiration. I know I do.
Q. What needs are out there that require some sustained citizen involvement to fulfill?
A. Don’t’ laugh at me Greg, but I think the biggest need is for the people of this community to stay positive, to stay focused, to think that our best days are still to come.
You know, we have SO many things that communities would kill for – a city park with a river running through it, a zoo, a fantastic university, a thriving community college, a retail shopping area, a downtown that’s coming alive, a New Year’s Eve ball drop, Red White and Boom, Ben’s Red Swings, an airport, a new middle school under construction – the list can go on.
But over the last six to seven years or so, our spirit was under attack – by some people who seemed hell bent to find conspiracies around every turn, and say NO to everything.
I think, and hope, those days are behind us. It’s time for our re-birth.
It’s time for our needs to again be met by those who find this city a great place to call home – warts and all.
Q. You’ve never really left Salisbury, though your siblings moved away. Why did Mike Dunn stay here?
A. Trust me, I’ve wondered that a lot over the years (laughs). The honest answer is that a health issue (Dunn was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 1991) played a part in it. I decided to return to Salisbury in 1998, figuring this comfortable place, where I knew so many people, was the best place from which to deal with the challenges of CFS.
After I moved back, I started getting involved again – and have never regretted it.
Q. You made a big move in 2003, when you ran for City Council. Why did you do it?
A. Well, the literal answer is because Phil Tilghman, a man I greatly admired, called me. This was before caller ID I should say!
He was one of many people who were involved in trying to recruit some good people to run for City Council. I was honored that he and others thought I fit the bill.
Much like in 2013, the wheels of the city had kind of come off, if you will. I ran because I thought I could make a difference, and because I thought I could win.
Q. You won the most votes in that election — I believe you actually set the record — and became council president.
A. It was quite a time. I recall one friend — yes, that was you, Greg Bassett — who actually told me not to run, as he didn’t think I had any “natural constituency.”
I received 82 percent of the vote, and more votes for city council than anyone – ever.
It was quite humbling.
We got busy – fast. We voted to build a new fire headquarters; to give police much needed raises; to settle once and for all that whole 4-2 (rental housing regulations) craziness; to build the long delayed Northeast Collector Road (the one that runs from Beaglin Park to the north end retail area); to fund new fire equipment, including engines and ambulances, and turnout gear; to put the first ever landlord licensing legislation into effect; to bring the lights back to the city park.
The previous council dysfunction had resulted in a huge backlog. And we acted on it.
Former City Administrator John Pick praised us for being the busiest council he’d ever seen. The spirit of cooperation on the council was made possible by some great cohorts – mainly Gary Comegys and Lynn Cathcart. We had a good relationship with then Mayor Barrie Parsons Tilghman.
It was a results-driven relationship – and I remain proud of all that we were able to accomplish.
Q. People thought you were going to be mayor, but you stepped aside.
A. They did? Nobody told me! (Dunn laughs.)
I did not seek re-election. That conspiratorial atmosphere that I mentioned above was just then beginning to find its footing. The siege that followed was something that I’d never seen before, and, frankly, I didn’t know what to do with it.
So, I thought not seeking re-election was the right move at the time.
Looking back, it wasn’t. It set the stage for the rancor of the next six years to flourish. Thankfully, last year’s election put an end to that.
I see great things in Jake Day. I have great hopes that, again, our best days are ahead of us, and that some unthinkably exciting things lie ahead.
Q. You briefly moved out of the city to a neighborhood just over the line. Now you’re back in the city. Any political aspirations going forward?
A. I will pursue further political aspiration just as soon as Salisbury becomes a two-newspaper town again. Oh wait … can I take that back?
Q. What’s your thinking behind One Salisbury?
A. OneSalisbury.com is two things.
First, it’s a hobby of mine. I’ve always liked to write, and the website provides me the chance to do that on a regular basis.
Second, it’s a chance to show this city in a positive light. As I say on the website, this city of ours has taken its fair share of knocks of late – some earned, some not. But in the end, it’s a great place to live.
The website is meant as a place to come and read good stories, positive stories, about this town of ours – and the people who are making a difference. I want Google searches of Salisbury to show folks that there is real goodness here. It’s not Utopia, but what is?
The website is a chance for a positive take on things. It’s NOT for breaking news. It’s for reflection, and for a different — I hope — perspective on things.
Q. What’s your favorite memory of growing up here?
A. THAT’S the toughest question of them all. You and I roamed the halls of Wi-Hi in the mid-1970’s. Need I say more?
But, since you asked, I’ll give you this: there is NO single memory that stands out. It’s all collective stuff.
I’ve told people on many occasions: I may someday meet someone who had a childhood that was as good as mine, but I’ll never meet anyone who had one that was better than mine. Because that’s simply not possible.
Growing up here was magical. I grew up on Wyman Drive – so Wi-Hi was my back yard. The old mall was my playground. So was the park, and the zoo, and the old Little League, and the Elks, and the YMCA.
I had great friends, a great family, more than my share of fun — and the kinds of memories that make it easy to smile and laugh.
Q. So next stop for you is July Fourth?
A. Come join us on the Fourth of July. Red White and Boom is not about me. It’s about our community.
Free fireworks in this community is not a want, it’s a need. When we look up in that sky on the Fourth, from wherever we are, we are celebrating as a community. The spirit that night is infectious.
Fireworks blasting from the heart of our city, for us all to enjoy, is as good as it gets..
To contact Mike Dunn with questions about Red, White and Boom, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at email@example.com