Not Just The Guy With His Name On The Fields...
By: Michael Kaplan | Photography: Andrea Ceraso
Jim Dunning is a ‘man in full’. He is the epitome of the brilliant, hard-charging, all-American, dyed-in-the-wool conservative, uber-successful businessman. He’s straight-forward, a lady’s man and a guy’s guy, and has the confidence of great experience. He turns a still-vibrant 75 this Summer and, while he claims to be retired, he quietly continues to help steer his wife’s powerhouse public relations firm – Jim’s married to Susan Magrino; having been introduced by the former President of Hearst Magazines – and otherwise keeps a social and business calendar, jetting between their homes in New Canaan, New York City, Orient, Long Island, and Jupiter, Florida, that would exhaust much younger men. He’s the proud patriarch of the Dunning clan, including his two sons from a previous marriage, James Dunning III, who is now 40, and his wife Katie and 3 grandchildren, who also live in New Canaan, and David, who is now 37, and Tiffany, and their twin boys, who live in Houston. …But despite all the fame and fortune, Jim wants the first word in his epitaph to be: Philanthropist.
Fifty-five years and two buildings, a lot of scholarships and a whole bunch of gifts to Penn later – he’s more than fulfilled the obligation…at Penn, and elsewhere.
“I come from plain, if not ordinary circumstances,” Jim explains. “My grandparents are from Illinois and Minnesota, and my parents met at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. All pretty traditional stock. My father was a New York Life lifer, and that meant we moved around America each time he got promoted. I was born in Spokane, Washington, and pretty incredibly, moved schools about a dozen times before I got to Deerfield Academy, in 1962, for 9th through 12th grade. We’d moved to San Diego when I was a toddler, and to Fresh Meadows, Queens for my Preschool and Kindergarten years. I did 1st Grade in Darien. Three different 4th Grades, and three different 6th Grades! I did the end of 6th, and all of 7th and 8th Grade at Trinity in Manhattan. It was all a formative experience for me. I got good at meeting new people and establishing myself in each new environment. I was very athletic, and used sports to grow credibility and make friends. But it was at prep school at Deerfield Academy where I found my first real home. I played baseball and hockey. It was all-boy, stable, disciplined, competitive, and stimulating. It changed the course of my life! As a result, I believe fundamentally that sports are an integral part of the proper development of young people – and that’s informed much of my giving and charitable work.”
With a measure of pride but not a hint of boasting, Jim continues, “I like to think I’ve taken a holistic approach. I’ve given some great facilities at great institutions so young people could have better education in sports. I’ve funded all kinds of scholarships and programs – always looking to provide opportunity for the young kid who’s coming from ordinary circumstances – like I did. And I devoted a whole lot of my time to coaching youth sports – and beyond coaching some of my own kids’ teams, working to ensure the quality of the experience for all of the kids in the New Canaan public school system. I’ve directed my philanthropy where I thought I could make an impact – like those Penn Trustees.”
Jay Egan, Director of Athletics at New Canaan High School, describes Jim saying, “Jim is a visionary philanthropist, who was the primary source for the funding and design of Dunning Stadium – the crown jewel of New Canaan’s sports facilities. One thing that speaks volumes about Jim is that his own children never went to public school in New Canaan! He’s a lover of sport, and cares deeply about doing what’s best for young people on a community level.” And Mike Murphy, Vice-Chair of the New Canaan Athletic Foundation, echoed those sentiments, saying, “It’s quite remarkable to be witness to the enduring impact of Jim’s conviction to the development of a multi-purpose athletic stadium in New Canaan. The tradition of generations of New Canaan families gathering at the annual New Canaan High School Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving Day, or for the quintessential New Canaan High School Graduation Ceremony – in Dunning Stadium, serve as testament to Jim’s vision. Jim’s altruistic spirit should be celebrated and emulated”.
As Jim’s son James III puts it, “Our dad loves my brother and me, and our friends! Our dad loves New Canaan and the kids in this community! And our dad loves sports! He’s always preached the importance of sports in a child’s life – as an activity that instills discipline, builds structure and creates leadership qualities. When he witnessed a need for fields in New Canaan, he spent the time and money to make it happen. Despite the fact my brother and I never played on Dunning, he recognized the importance of building the stadium to bring the community together and provide better sports education for every kid in town. And he’s mentored so many kids, we sometimes felt like we were sharing our dad with a host of brothers and sisters.” And as Jim’s son David adds, “Dad’s vision, resolve and leadership in philanthropic endeavors is contagious within a community. The way he gives is in line with his beliefs.”
And maybe even more poignant than Jim’s own sons’ feelings about their dad, are the expressions of gratitude that are typical of the young people Jim coached on baseball, football and hockey teams in New Canaan, Darien, Stamford and Trumbull. David Benko, who’s now in Sales Development at BTS Insurance in New Canaan, says about Jim: “Beyond his countless contributions to the community, Mr. Dunning had a major impact on my development as an athlete and as a person. Mr. Dunning would show up to practice in perfectly pressed slacks, a monogrammed button-down shirt – and black Nike baseball spikes. He came right from the office to the diamond, and ran everything about our team with a professionalism that’s stuck with me to this day. He always made sure I got to the field even if it meant going a half-hour out of his way to pick me up. On the way to games he would talk to us about focus, and on the way home he would talk to us about the good, the bad and the ugly. He was as sincere with praise as he was with critique – and both were always earned with him. He was always motivating us to keep getting better – and it worked! I hope I’m still making him proud!”
Jim moved to New Canaan in 1984. His son, James, went to New Canaan Country School, Deerfield and then Penn – where he played baseball. David went to St. Lukes, Eaglebrook, Deerfield, Penn – where he played football, and then USC Business School.
At St. Luke’s, Jim donated a field complex that included a full baseball diamond and football field; both fields have since been changed to artificial turf.
Even more significantly, for the Town of New Canaan, where Jim coached baseball and football teams and felt the facilities were not up to snuff, Jim worked with the Hawes family – also of New Canaan – to put the foundation capital together to build the new Dunning Stadium at the New Canaan High School.
At his prep school alma mater Deerfield Academy, where Jim went to prep school and played baseball and hockey, Jim served as a Trustee in the 1990s and 2000s and led his 50th Reunion’s establishment of a scholarship fund for students from middle-income families – like the one he came from. After going to a poorly attended Deerfield baseball game, Jim went out and hired the folks who rebuilt Fenway to come to Deerfield and re-site and rebuild the baseball field and facility. Crowds of 2,000 or more followed. And then Jim added the gift of another field, complete with stands and scoreboards, for the Deerfield girls softball team to play on.
At his college alma mater Penn, where Jim served as a Trustee for a decade, and as one of the Overseers of the Athletic Department for the University, Jim donated the Dunning Coaches Center, located adjacent to Franklin Field, which houses most of Penn’s athletic coaching facilities. And, with others, he followed that up with the gift of the Dunning-Cohen Champions Field for sports practices, which features a synthetic surface and an erectable structure that turns the field into an indoor practice facility in the colder weather. Upon meeting the older Penn graduate, fellow Penn Trustee, and super-donor George Weiss, Jim became committed to Weiss’ philosophy that philanthropy was all about impact, and joined in his efforts through the Say Yes To Education organization, which has sent 80,000+ kids to college.
In addition, much of Jim’s other charity is more under-the-radar. Like at St. Marks, where Jim attends church. “I was raised Episcopalian. My father earned an honorary doctorate from the Yale Divinity School and even wrote some of the liturgy of the Episcopalian Church. I was exposed but not indoctrinated. I was an altar boy, and I was favorably impressed by some of the priests and ministers I came in contact with in all the places we lived. I liked their approach to their lives. Something about making the most of each God-given day; having and sharing joy, and; participating in the lives of others. When it came time to raising my boys, Church was on the schedule every Sunday morning. And it was that way for me until the pandemic hit… a lot of things have changed since then…” Jim says a little wistfully.
Of course it took quite a career in business for Jim to be able to fund his philanthropy. Jim’s resume, starting in publishing but then including all sorts of other industries, is an almost endless list of turnarounds and expansions…and profitable liquidation events. “I got into Wharton – in the era of the Vietnam War – and jumped at the chance to get their business degree without having to go to graduate school,” Jim recalls. “When I graduated from Wharton, I formed a group of Penn guys, including a Wharton Professor, an MBA, and a Penn lawyer, and we set out building and buying companies with the audacious intention of building a global conglomerate. I started a national student marketing company, and then a national sampling company, and grew each to multi-million dollar, profitable operations. We developed a collection of businesses including consulting companies doing business in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. But then we got involved in an agricultural chemicals venture firm, and suffered a big loss when their entire developmental research center at Rutgers became diseased and was written-off. And the final straw came in 1973, when we lost the rest of whatever we’d made speculating on oil in the midst of the energy crisis. I sold the student marketing company to Publishers Clearing House and took a job with them to learn a bit more about the politics of corporate marketing.”
With that experience under his belt, in 1977 Jim was recruited to become Jann Wenner’s #2 guy at Rolling Stone magazine. Wenner had started the title in 1968 and made it into a cultural icon, but Jim turned Rolling Stone into a profitable business. He moved Rolling Stone to be more than music and made the brand unisex. He raised debt financing, lowered the cost of newsstand distribution, restructured subscription revenues to get a higher valuation, raised the advertising rate base, and brought in major advertisers like Ford and VW. Then he expanded the business to include other media and significant additional revenue streams. Rolling Stone’s success was a big story, and Jim was a big part of it.
Wenner and Dunning started Outside Magazine, and brought in Willie Hearst as Editor and Jack Ford, son of the President, to sell advertising. Dunning recalls, “We lost $1M publishing only a couple of issues, but then sold the property for a nice profit to Mariah Publishing – and the title survives to this day.”
Then, on August 27, 1982 – the exact same day as the beginning of the greatest bull market in history, Jim was hired to be the Head of Corporate Finance and Mergers and Acquisitions at the giant Wall Street firm Thomson McKinnon – even though Jim had no prior Wall Street experience. During Jim’s stint at Thomson, Jim was responsible, among other things, for notable growth in the firm’s underwriting business. After Thomson, the Ziff family brought Jim in to direct the dismantling and disposition of their Ziff Davis conglomerate.
Again as principal, in 1986, Jim invested $600,000 to buy the Yellow Pages of Long Island, expanded to Brooklyn, Queens, and Florida, and then revolutionized the historically print-only business into a group of electronic database businesses with a significant business-to-business element. He took it public with Lehman and Kidder as underwriters, then sold to the private equity firm Oak Hill, for another substantial gain.
In 1996, Jim led the buyout team which purchased Petersen Publishing for $460M. In 1997, Jim took Petersen public on the New York Stock Exchange – on the same day as he closed the sale of Transwestern! He quickly expanded Petersen, the publisher of Motor Trend, HotRod, Teen and Sport and a couple dozen other magazine titles, into a multimedia producer with 76 brands. He started a network TV division which produced shows for NBC, ESPN and cable outlets including the Gravity Games. Jim grew profits from $20M to $80M in just two years and then sold in 1999 for $1.8 Billion!
Then operating at what can only be described as investment banking hyperspeed, Jim pulled-off one deal after another, sometimes a couple at a time, and typically with a large gain at the end of the day. He bought and sold Standard Rate and Data, a media information business based in Chicago from the Robert Maxwell estate and sold it to a Dutch media conglomerate a year-and-a-half later for yet another substantial gain. He was a principal investor in Double Down Media, which concentrated venture investments in magazines serving the financial industry. And he served as the Chairman of Freedom Communications, which owned and operated 100 newspapers and 8 TV stations, and oversaw a significant turnaround in that business.
And then, quite unusually, Jim agreed to a term as a Special Monitor for the Enforcement Division of the Securities & Exchange Commission, working to oversee hedge fund operations.
When it comes to big-business, to put it lightly, Jim has done it all! And his track record has been remarkable! But, as Jim reflects, “These days I’m content to work behind-the-scenes for Magrino PR – even though Susan is the toughest boss I’ve ever had! Imagine that: I finally retired and now I’m under the gun 24/7! In truth, I love the role supporting my wife, and I’m pleased to see her continue to grow Magrino as a global leader in public relations and marketing spanning all media. We have a great life together! We’re both long-term New Canaan residents and love the town, and members of Susan’s family have lived and gone to school in town, but we also get to enjoy time in Orient – where Susan grew up going in summers – and at our place in Jupiter. I work-out every day. But my greatest joy is being with my kids and their families, and watching them mature and succeed as healthy and happy adults.” Adding, incorrigibly, “Of course if they come calling on me to run Blackstone or something like that…”
Jim wants the first word in his epitaph to be: Philanthropist. Good chance, when he gets to the pearly gates, they’ll be having a ceremony to name the baseball diamond ‘Dunning Field’, and Jim will be handed a big stack of tributes from some of the many young people he’s impacted, like this one from lifelong New Canaanite David X. Prutting, who Jim coached in football and baseball, and who is now a principal in the BFA photo agency:
It was immediately obvious to all of us that Mr. Dunning was a successful business person. I was enamored by his huge black Mercedes and his signature Macanudo cigars. And even though the smoke wasn’t my favorite scent, we were all always happy to catch a ride to the games with him – just to have some extra time in his presence. It always impressed me how such a titan of business could make all this time available to be present for not just his own kids, but for all of us?! It’s something that – now, as a successful business owner myself – has always stayed with me. Growing up here in New Canaan, there were plenty of rich and powerful dads, but few that were willing to make such selfless efforts with their time and money for the good of many. It wasn’t just the all new equipment and jerseys he provided in football and baseball year after year – but the actual fields we played on!
It was also somehow immediately obvious to all of us that you wanted to earn Mr. Dunning’s respect. His voice was like an alarm clock that you couldn’t snooze. It jolted you into action. He had a masterful way of motivating you to play at your best – taking interest in each individual’s potential. He was tough and demanding, yet empathetic and caring. His passion was contagious.
And then, when Mr. Dunning saw the need to build a first-class baseball field at New Canaan High School – even though his kids were not attending the school – it really showed how selfless his projects and his coaching all were. When teams eventually played at Dunning Stadium, you could see the immense pride it brought Mr. Dunning to see all the kids – not even including his own – flourishing. I got to play at Dunning Stadium and can testify that playing there – and the feeling that Mr. Dunning thought we deserved it – gave me a great sense of pride. My senior year, as co-captain of the football team, we won the 1999 FCIAC championship, with Dunning as our home field. I truly believe that part of our motivation was to prove that his investment in us was worth it!
And that sense of pride and generosity continues in and with each new generation in town. It’s why Mr. Dunning’s legacy is cemented here in town as not just the guy with his name on the fields, but as the transformational coach and leader who truly loved supporting the youth of New Canaan and who made a real difference in the lives of many. That’s Mr. Dunning’s return-on-investment!
Everything I learned from Mr. Dunning is instrumental and influential in how I’m running my own life, raising my own kids, and leading my company. Making the time for others and, when appropriate, putting their needs over your own.
Thank you Mr. Dunning!