Newsman's dream job marks 50th anniversary
Last updated 3/16/2021 at 9:25pm
It's been 50 years to the day – St. Patrick's Day, 1971 -- since Roy Dunn went into the newspapering business with the first edition of the Opportunity Valley News.
It was a free weekly tabloid newspaper delivered to every home in Orange County. Its purpose, pronounced editor Lee Grimsley Jr., was "to keep you informed of events that are taking place right here in our rapidly growing community ... our fertile industrial valley between the Sabine and the Neches."
Dunn, now 86 and publisher of the Penny Record in Bridge City and County Record in Orange, was like a Texas wildcatter risking it all on an oilwell.
He struck a gusher.
And in just nine years' time, he built a Southeast Texas community news and advertising goliath, sold out for a bundle on his 46th birthday and retired to a ranch in South Texas.
"I started off knowing absolutely nothing about newspapers, other than I'd read a few. But it was phenomenal, the instant success of people wanting that thing," he said.
"Right after the first edition, it got so popular, people would be waiting for each issue to come out of the press."
Son Mark Dunn, then 15, recalled the electricity in the air.
"It was the original social media for Orange County," he said. "When the papers came in, it was like feeding chickens. We couldn't give them out fast enough."
The first edition of the Opportunity Valley News was topped by a large photo of its sports editor and Bridge City native and University of Texas All-American Steve Worster on the occasion of Worster receiving a painting of himself in action from his days leading the Longhorns to national titles in 1969 and 1970.
The sports editor? Pete Runnels, who went on to become Orange County Judge and, later, Mayor of Pinehurst.
Roy Dunn says Runnels' weekly sports column entitled "'Strike Two, Third Down' made his name very famous around Orange County."
Lots of famous faces graced the pages of the Opportunity Valley News.
Dunn has always said he knows a lot of people in Orange County. But he just knows a lot of people, period.
In 1972, Dunn's newspaper was invited to Super Bowl VI in New Orleans' Tulane Stadium by the NFL, where the Dallas Cowboys downed the Miami Dolphins 24-3 for their first world title.
MVP Roger Staubach threw for two TDs, one to Lance Alworth, another to Mike Ditka. Running back Duane Thomas ran for 95 yards and a score.
Dunn and his wife, Phyllis, were guests of Muhammad Ali's attorney Gene Wright and among the biggest indoor boxing crowd ever as Ali won back his heavyweight title from Leon Spinks at the Superdome in 1978. Seven months earlier, in advance of their first fight, Dunn had interviewed Spinks correctly predicted that Spinks victory in print.
The paper presented multi-page spreads on the events.
"One time me and Sandi [Mobley] were in the office and Roy was on the phone with Muhammad Ali, and we were on all the other lines listening in," recalled Debbie Fusilier, who began, along with Mobley, working half-days for the Opportunity Valley News, as a DECA student in 1973. "Of course, we heard his stories about Bob Hope."
Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips and comedian Bob Hope hosted a charity golf tournament in Port Arthur for several years and the newspaperman's home contains gifts from each.
Dunn was as home around them as he was with area celebs like A.J. "Crazy Frenchman" Judice, with whom he raced crawfish and Kountze newspaper owner/editor Buddy Moore, who performed a wedding ceremony for armadillos.
But he was hardly a one-man band when it came to getting the paper out.
Grimsley, Dunn said, "was the only one we had that knew anything about newspapers."
But the staff had the knack for delivering the goods readers wanted. Local history and lots of local names.
"We had Nina Hardin working for us, a great historian," Dunn said. "She interviewed a lot of people over 90 about what the area was like when they were coming up."
Beginning with its second week's edition, a regular inclusion was "Person of the Week." The first was Red Garrett, who was to receive the Distinguished Service Award at the Greater Orange Area Jaycees' banquet headlined by Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes.
A few weeks later, the "Person of the Week" award went to James Quigley, owner/publisher of the Orange Leader, Dunn's local competition for ad sales and readership.
"I wrote a feel-good story about Mr. Quigley," Dunn said.
Regular contributors included columnists Gordon Baxter, Harold and Sheila Beeson and Don Jacobs.
Arlene Turkel, who recently retired as an English professor at Lamar State College Orange, wrote an advice column called "Ask Arlene."
"It was like a Dear Abby column," explained Turkel's ex-boss.
A big feature of Dunn's papers has always been his gossip columns. The first was called "Ear To The Ground by the Office Hound."
"I carried a lot more gossip because I was young and going out," Dunn said. "I knew what was going on.
"I came up with the idea that if you were caught out messing around, you had to send us a cake. I'd run hints, like, 'the owner of the black car seen parked in front of a certain house on Country Club Drive while his wife is out of town should send me a damn cake.'"
Dunn's offices have always included a table with fruits and vegetables and homemade bread brought by friends dropping by for morning coffee. And a goodly number of cakes.
Phyllis Dunn, or Ms. Phyl as she's known around the office, maintained order in the business and was no stranger to the cutting and pasting, doing whatever needed to be done.
Mark Dunn, as well as Roy and Dunn's other two children, Karen and Allen, pitched in.
"Roy did a lot of writing, just kind of running the show," Fusilier recalls. "In the early days, we only had five, six or seven employees all together."
When the paper opened, it was housed in a room at Frank Manchac's Green Avenue insurance office in Orange.
"We laid out the paper on the floor using scissors and cans of glue to cut and paste," Dunn recalls. "We had no equipment. I'd buy the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post and we'd cut out letters and paste them down for our headlines.
"We developed our film in the bathroom."
By the time Fusilier started, the OVN office had moved to Sixth Street.
Jackie Harmon, one of the owners of the Harmon Chevrolet dealership, sold Dunn a building on 6th Street in downtown, next door to the Orange Mercantile. He took out Dunn's payments in advertising.
"Having that building made a big difference," the still-owner of that downtown real estate said.
Dunn owned three liquor stores when he started the Opportunity Valley News. He closed one and sold the others to keep the paper afloat in its early days.
"I was making enough not to be losing money, but I just wasn't getting enough money," he said. "I was selling full page ads for $80."
Classified ads were free. So were obituaries.
"Free classified ads were a big draw," Fusilier said. "You could even phone them in."
Eventually, the OVN carried advertising from all the major grocers of the day like Krogers, Market Basket, Weingartens and the Texas Avenue Grocery owned by Dick Bevins. They won contracts for inserts from national chains like Sears and Western Auto.
"We just flat stole all that business from the Orange Leader," Dunn recalled.
The paper grew to be as large as 100 pages.
But one complaint he shared with other small newspaper owners centered on cash flow. The printer insisted on being paid up front for each issue, before the newspapers could collect from advertisers.
An ingenious solution was hatched.
Dunn joined the owners of the Vinton, Lumberton, Winnie, Cleveland and Kountze papers in forming a partnership and bought the printer's business out from under him, leaving the printer as a partner. Later, a loan at Bridge City Bank allowed Dunn to buy out all his partners. When the printer refused to sell, Dunn fired him. Then he sold.
Dunn expanded his business into Beaumont and opened the Consumer Beacon, which he ran from 1977 to 1979 in addition to the OVN.
"Beaumont was too big to work as a total distribution newspaper," he said. "With 50,000 to 60,000 households, I couldn't hire enough delivery people. So we moved."
The Community Post in Port Arthur opened on Gulfway Drive in September of 1979.
Mark Dunn, with nearly a decade's experience, moved over to work as editor and production manager.
"With all the success the Opportunity Valley News had, the Community Post was just amazing, the way it took off," Roy Dunn said. "It was taking so much money from the Port Arthur News that after nine months, they got ahold of me to buy it."
Cox Enterprises, owner of the Port Arthur News then and eventually the Orange Leader, made an offer the Dunns couldn't refuse.
The deal included a five-year non-compete clause for Roy Dunn while Mark Dunn worked briefly at the News, then opened Mark Dunn Advertising.
In 1992, Roy Dunn joined in a partnership to purchase the Bridge City Penny Record, which had been around since 1960. He eventually became sole owner of the Penny Record and founded the County Record in 1995.
And since re-entering the news business one of his top advertisers has been Kenneth Smith, who was a 14-year-old working for the Texas Avenue Grocery when it began advertising with OVN.
"Kenneth ended up owning that store and another in Bridge City. Today, he owns K-Dan's in Orangefield," Dunn said.
But it's just another story from the community Dunn loves.
"When we were struggling to get going, the community came out to help us. We got volunteers to deliver the paper," he said. "Look what I started with $500 and a typewriter. What came of it was awesome."