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Dunn was born in Meridian, Mississippi. He graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1950 with a B.B.A., and from the University of Tennessee Medical Units in Memphis in 1955 with a D.D.S. Dunn served with the U.S. Navy in the Asiatic-Pacific Theatre during World War II. Dunn was also a reserve lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
Settling in Memphis after completing dental school there, Dr. Dunn established a flourishing practice and soon became active in local Republican politics. The Southern political landscape was changing rapidly at that time, and Dunn rose to the position of chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party. There was a massive crossover of voters in the South from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in the late 1960s, and the trend was stronger nowhere than among white voters in Memphis. Dunn was a delegate to the 1968 Republican National Convention.
In 1970, Dunn decided to run for the Republican nomination for governor of Tennessee. The party had not even fielded a nominee in the gubernatorial election four years prior, but suddenly the nomination seemed valuable, in large measure to the factors cited above, and in the primary Dunn defeated four opponents, including 1962 Republican nominee Hubert Patty, then-Speaker of the Tennessee House (and now-Congressman) Bill Jenkins, and industrialist Maxey Jarman, head of Genesco Corp. After winning the Republican nomination, Dunn defeated attorney and entreprenuer John Jay Hooker, the Democratic nominee, becoming the first Republican elected governor of Tennessee in half a century. During his tenure, Governor Dunn was a member of the National Governors' Conference Executive Committee from 1971-1973, and he chaired the Education Commission of the States from 1972 to 1973 and the Republican Governors Association from 1973 to 1974.
The Tennessee State Constitution did not allow governors to succeed themselves at the time that Dunn's term expired in 1975. He did not return to the practice of dentistry, however, but remained in Nashville as a businessman. He was prevailed upon to be the 1986 Republican nominee for governor against Democrat Ned McWherter, against his better judgement according to some sources, and ran a lackluster campaign and was beaten fairly badly. One of the factors was Dunn's opposition to the state's opening and operating a second medical school in Johnson City while he was governor, preferring to devote more resources to the existing one in Memphis instead. This incurred the opposition of powerful Congresssman Jimmy Quillen, a key fixture in East Tennessee Republican politics, and other East Tennessee Republicans. Without the support of Quillen or many other East Tennessee Republicans, Dunn's 1986 campaign stood almost no chance.
Retiring from active politics, Dunn returned to his business interests, especially banking, with notably strong results. He continues to serve the Tennessee Republican Party as something of an "elder statesman" who is still very popular with grass-roots party members in Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee.
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