In My Day it was Paul H. Dunn
Recently Mormonland has been crowded with stories about Tim Ballard, the LDS founder and former CEO of Operation Underground Railroad (OUR). Once a model Latter-day Saint and possible candidate for Romney’s senate seat, Ballard is now excommunicated and facing charges of sexual assault. Reports also reveal he frequented bars and strip clubs, entertained messianic visions, and communicated with the Book of Mormon prophet, Nephi, via a Bountiful psychic.
I first heard of Ballard back in July, when my Facebook feed was inundated with my LDS friends’ gleeful promotions of Sound of Freedom, a feature film based on Ballard’s purported attempts to rescue children out of slavery.
One look at the trailer and I smelled a rat. I mean, if the guy was so dedicated to the cause why not make a documentary that focused on the victims? Why a fictional film that focused on himself?
But then, I speak from experience. In my day, it was Elder Paul H. Dunn.
If you were a BYU student in the late 1970’s, there were a few things you never missed: Pillow Concerts at the Wilkinson Center, Donny and Marie on Friday nights, and Paul Dunn’s devotionals and firesides.
Elder Dunn just gave the best talks, filled with humor, feel-good fuzzies, and most of all, stories. They were doozies, all right: Dunn, the former minor league baseball player who once struck out Joe DiMaggio; Dunn, the war hero whose boot and helmet were shot off during battle; Dunn, whose best friend died in his arms at Okinawa. Oh my heck. We couldn’t get enough of his stories.
Luckily, he had books, over fifty of them. And tapes! All filled with more feats of derring-do. Also luckily, they were just within the means of a BYU coed’s meager disposable income. The lines for his book signings snaked through the entirety of the BYU Bookstore. I know. I stood in two of them.
Long story short, they were lies, every one of his feel-good swashbuckling tales. In the early 90’s a courageous journalist, Lynn Packer, wrote a detailed exposé for the Arizona Republic. Packer even tracked down one Harold Lester Brown, the former war buddy Dunn claimed had died in his arms. Turned out the guy was still alive and in touch with Elder Dunn, with whom he exchanged Christmas cards.
To this day I’m amazed Dunn had the hubris to invent such outlandish claims about real individuals who could easily rat him out. Also that, when he was ratted out, he had the hubris to compare his stories to Jesus’ parables, and then (sheepishly) concede that Jesus’ parables were not about himself.
Hence my misgivings about Ballard.
I suppose I should point out that Elder Dunn’s misrepresentations pale in comparison to Ballard’s alleged abuses and delusions of grandeur. But the “my conman wasn’t as bad as your conman” argument is thin at best. Besides, given how gullible I was, Dunn might have been an ax murderer and I wouldn’t have been the wiser. His just gave the best talks.
One story in particular sticks with me. As a young lad, Paul had the opportunity to meet Lou Gehrig. Gehrig signed Dunn’s baseball, imparted fatherly advice about the game and life, and then knelt with him in prayer. –All bollox, of course. But here’s the thing. The moral of Dunn’s story was that non-Mormons are good people, too! They could even be role models. That wasn’t a message we heard in General Conference.
In retrospect, I don’t know if Dunn believed in the morals of his stories any more than the stories themselves. But he did know one thing. He knew what we wanted to hear, and what we wanted to believe about ourselves. He made us feel like good people with real opportunities to do good in the world. Not just in the Church.
Ballard’s purported efforts to save children from trafficking had to be inspiring to so many Latter-day Saints eager to show the world their good deeds. Of course they ponied up their meager disposable cash to see the movie, not to mention, donate to OUR.
Because, despite what they hear in Conference, Mormons still want to emulate all good people. Not just “those who believe.” And they want to be part of an organization that protects children from sex trafficking, not snubs children because of how their parents have sex.
I guess that’s makes them easy marks. But then, whose fault is that?