Popular Mormon leader relates stirring--but untrue--stories about his life

March 03, 1991|By Richard R. Robertson | Richard R. Robertson,Arizona Republic

SALT LAKE CITY -- Among Mormons, Elder Paul H. Dunn is a popular teacher, author and role model. As a prominent leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for more than 25 years, he has told countless inspirational stories about his life:

Like the time his best friend died in his arms during a World War II battle, while imploring Mr. Dunn to teach America's youth about patriotism. Or how God protected him as enemy machine-gun bullets ripped away his clothing, gear and helmet without ever touching his skin. Or how perseverance and Mormon values led him to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals.

But those stories are not true.

Mr. Dunn's "dead" best friend isn't dead; only the heel of Mr. Dunn's boot caught a bullet; and he never played for the St. Louis Cardinals or any other major league team.

Mr. Dunn acknowledged to the Arizona Republic that those stories and others were untrue, but he defended fabrications as necessary to illustrate his theological and moral points.

He compares his stories with the parables told by Jesus -- acknowledging, however, that Jesus' parables weren't about himself.

One of the Mormons' "Thirteen Articles of Faith" deals with honesty.

Other Mormon leaders apparently were concerned about this in September 1989, because, within weeks of investigating allegations that his war and sports stories were fabricated, they quietly placed Mr. Dunn, 66, on "emeritus" status "for health reasons."

As a "general authority" since 1964, Mr. Dunn had been among the top 90 men who govern the 7.3-million-member worldwide church.

The church also pressured Salt Lake City free-lance writer Lynn Packer, a Mormon, not to publish stories about Mr. Dunn's fabrications. In the fall, after the church had terminated Mr. Packer's teaching contract at Brigham Young University for pursuing the story, he provided information he has collected over the past four years to the Republic.

Despite Mr. Dunn's "retirement," his grandfatherly demeanor and down-home, self-deprecating storytelling style continue to make him a popular public speaker and author.

He also remains the most prolific author among current and former church leaders. He receives royalties from 23 inspirational cassette tapes and 28 books, many of which contain his exaggerated war and baseball stories.

Relying partly on his reputation as a former professional athlete, Mr. Dunn also is promoting his new business, Sports-Values Training Centers, which brings professional athletes and teen-age boys together for inspirational workshops.

Mr. Dunn, 66, who has a doctorate in education, said he didn't consider it deceitful to exaggerate or alter facts.

He said his technique is to "combine" elements of several true stories to create a single story that will better convey a message and capture an audience's interest.

In the case of his false claim to have played for the St. Louis Cardinals, he said youngsters can relate better to a major-league team than to the farm teams for which he briefly played.

"I haven't purposely tried to embellish or rewrite history. I've tried to illustrate points that would create interest," Mr. Dunn explained.

"Combining war stories is simply putting history in little finer packages," he said.

But concerns about Mr. Dunn's rewriting of history prompted BYU faculty editors to delete segments about Mr. Dunn from a now-released book about Mormon soldiers, titled "A Time to Kill: Reflections on War."

"Elder Dunn's stories didn't match military history documents," explained one of the editors, Grant P. Skabelund.

One of Mr. Dunn's most dramatic embellished stories, told on a tape titled "War Experiences," is about the combat death of his closest wartime buddy, Harold Lester Brown.

Mr. Dunn, who was a private in an anti-tank platoon, vividly described how he and Mr. Brown were pinned down for the night in separate foxholes on Okinawa.

"Unfortunately, one of the [mortar] shells caught a direct hit on the foxhole of my friend . . . and I could hear him call out when that shell first hit," Mr. Dunn recounted. He said he listened all night to Mr. Brown's moans, while fighting off "two or three banzai attacks and artillery attacks."

At daybreak, Mr. Dunn said, he was able to rush to his friend's rain-filled foxhole, where he found Mr. Brown's head barely above the water.

"How in the world he lived that night I don't know. I counted, after his death, 67 shrapnel wounds, some large enough where you could put your whole hand in," Mr. Dunn said.

Mr. Brown's last words, as recounted by Mr. Dunn, were:

" 'I know this is the end. . . . If you ever have an opportunity . . . to talk to the young people of America, will you tell them for me that it's a privilege to lay down my life for them?'

"And with that testimony on his lips, he died!"

The problem with the story, Mr. Packer discovered, is that Mr. Brown didn't die on Okinawa. In fact, he hasn't died yet. Mr. Brown said from his home in Odessa, Mo., that he was perplexed by Mr. Dunn's story.

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