- Courtesy DeAndre Smith
- Sam Dunlap
Sometimes the footprints of giants are left by ordinary men who have the courage to stride extraordinarily.
Last month, we laid hometown hero Sam Dunlap to rest; he was 85. Dunlap grew up locally, in the Hillside neighborhood. And as a young man he experienced several history-making firsts. Among them: He played first base and outfielder for the city’s first all-black championship semi-pro baseball team, and was honored with induction into the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame in 2014. He was also District 11’s first African-American baseball coach and community liaison.
As I sat in Angelus Chapel funeral home patiently waiting my turn to pay my last respects to “uncle Bud,” all I could feel was overwhelming gratitude for a conversation we had years earlier, and that he had allowed me to interview him.
Although I didn’t grow up in Hillside, my family has spent a lot of time in the neighborhood over the years. You learn quickly that one can’t be connected with the community very long without learning the legend of Sam Dunlap. Hearing the stories about all the lives he touched, and his devotion to those who loved him, I naturally wanted to talk with him. I was intrigued to know the “why” behind his impact.
Dunlap offered, almost as a balm, his own places of brokenness, which resonated with some of my own experiences. My boys were young at the time, and their father was no longer home. That void hurt them deeply. Mr. Dunlap knew that pain, and no doubt his level of empathy helped fuel his devotion to others for more than a half century.
That particular day, after a phone call from Pastor Promise Lee, Dunlap dropped what he was doing to meet with me at Lee’s church, Relevant Word. I was immediately struck by his genuine warmth and openness to reflecting on his days as a boy at the Helen Hunt school. In those hours, I came to understand how countless others have been drawn to his love, and the genuine feeling that he gave people: that he believed in you.
He spoke of his father with great esteem and love. Unfortunately, his dad was wounded while in the military, and often spent large amounts of time at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Denver. Sometimes, his dad would be gone as many as nine months out of the year. He said he often felt alone and angry, emotions that became compounded by the effects of racism in the Springs during the 1930s and ’40s.
“I was suspended from school at the age of 5 years old ... the youngest student to be suspended in Helen Hunt at the time,” Dunlap told me. One day while sitting under a tree, he said he tripped a girl who walked by. His teacher grabbed him by the arm and said, “You little black S.O.B.” and escorted him to the principal’s office. On the way, he bit a chunk out of her arm. To make matters worse, when he was 14 his mother passed away, leaving him feeling even more abandoned and bitter.
He said he couldn’t understand why God had taken his mother at such a young age, and he didn’t know how to deal with those emotions at his own young age. He said his anger often made him feel like hurting or killing someone. But Dunlap gave credit to God for helping him make it out of that dark place, and also for instilling in him a devotion to improving the lives of others. He also said he felt “called” to the community where he grew up, so that’s where he stayed.
Not many things in life offer as much reward and inspiration as selflessly giving to others. When done right, that causes a ripple that goes far beyond what any one person can see on their horizon. Sam Dunlap exemplified this lesson well, overcoming his own hardships to achieve great milestones, then sharing his wisdom with those around him. He will be missed around Hillside, where he won’t soon be forgotten.