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Victoria County Heritage director announces plan to retire

By Melissa Crowe
Nov. 26, 2012 at 5:26 a.m.
Updated Nov. 27, 2012 at 5:27 a.m.

Victoria County Heritage Director Gary Dunnam shows a Civil War sword carried by Adam Jatho, who owned a business on Main Street before dying in the early 1900s. Dunnam said he will miss treasures like this once he retires at the end of the year. Photo by Melissa Crowe

From the buildings throughout the county to the men and women who built them, Gary Dunnam is a champion for preserving Victoria County's heritage.

The motivation behind his extensive research and restoration projects stems to John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath": "How will we know it is us without our past?"

After a combined 28 years serving as the executive director of Victoria Preservation Inc. and director of the Victoria County Heritage Department, he announced Monday morning his plan to retire.

Dunnam, who will turn 70 next month, said, "It's time for a change."

Standing among filing boxes of mementos and stacks of research and photographs, Dunnam said he plans to leave the office at the end of the year, if not sooner.

While the decision is bittersweet, he said he is happy with his accomplishments.

"It's like the final chapter of history: It'll never be written," Dunnam said.

Dunnam will continue serving as a member of the Victoria County Historical Commission and as co-chairman of the marker committee within that commission to identify historical markers in town.

"There is just a lot of history to document, and I want to continue being active, but I want time for myself," Dunnam said.

He wants to make sure the research into the county's history continues. Dunnam will also continue his leadership as secretary on El Camino Real board of directors.

"The work that's been done with revitalizing downtown and the Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail has been very important to Victoria County," he said.

County Judge Don Pozzi and the commissioners court accepted Dunnam's retirement Monday morning and thanked him for his contribution to the community.

"He is certainly going to be missed by Victoria County," Pozzi said. "Fortunately, he is remaining in Victoria County and will continue the many things that he has accomplished during his tenure in historical preservation, be it archives, working with Victoria Preservation Inc. and certainly the outstanding job that he has done over the years with regard to the Camino Real."

Dunnam's first day on the job as executive director of Victoria Preservation Inc. was Sept. 1, 1996. In January 2000, he took on another role as director of the heritage department.

"I enjoy this," Dunnam said. "It's all been a very positive experience. I consider myself lucky to do a job I love."

At times, the work has been exhausting and tedious, requiring a thorough eye and a sharp attention to detail. He said the work he does is not for him; it is for the next generations.

His proudest accomplishment was renovating the 1892 courthouse, which he called a symbol of the community.

The bond election that funded the renovation passed with 83 percent support.

He contends the highlight of his career with the county has been working alongside former county judge Helen Walker.

"I think the county is losing a very valuable resource," Walker said. "He's been a tremendous boon to bringing out the history of Victoria County."

She said she hopes the county can continue to call on Dunnam as a historical consultant.

"It's taken so long to get people to realize what absolutely marvelous history we have," Walker said. "Victoria County has more history than almost anywhere - this is the beginning of Texas history."

Before Dunnam became heritage director, he served four years with the Army Security Agency stationed in Turkey, was an elementary school teacher in Dallas and later took a job in Victoria as district manager of Cinemark Theatres.

He was 28 when he moved to Victoria from Dallas in 1971.

"I always had an interest in history," Dunnam said.

He grew up in Big Spring, east of Midland. Moving to Victoria opened his eyes to Texas' rich history.

"I love it," Dunnam said. "You don't restore buildings to get tourists to come see them. You get involved in historic preservation because a community must have an identity of its history."

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