The people of Rochester have known for years about the remarkable generosity of Bill and Jim Dunson, whose Gate Ranch Golf Course has welcomed one and all since the brothers hacked it out of their back pasture in 2001.
Creating a donation-only golf course for their friends, neighbors and all comers was always a labor of love for the brothers, and continued even after Jim died quietly in his sleep from pancreatic cancer and heart issues at age 79 in late 2017.
His older brother and best friend Bill Dunson, 89, continues to run the nine-hole golf course.
They have second-hand golf clubs they’ll loan out for free. Users are invited to put a couple of bucks into a donation box to help pay for equipment and upkeep, but there’s no charge to use the golf course. In Chronicle stories over the years, the brothers said they love seeing the community enjoy golfing in their back pasture. They particularly love seeing students learn the game on the home-grown fairways and greens.
“We’re not professionals, and we don’t even golf a ton, but we have the know-how and we’re able to pass it on to the younger folks,” Jim Dunson told The Chronicle’s Chris Brewer in 2011. “We’re just here to have a good time and enjoy it out here.”
This unique community dedication recently attracted the attention of television personality Mike Rowe, whose series of true-life shows feature everyday, salt-of-the-earth folks like the Dunsons.
Rowe’s latest program, Returning the Favor, highlights people he calls “bloody do-gooders, people who are slightly better than us, doing nice things for their community in a selfless way.” He profiles these folks and surprises them with something big that returns the favor they’ve done for others.
Last December, on the one-year anniversary of Jim Dunson’s death, an episode of Returning the Favor was released, featuring Bill Dunson and his Gate Ranch Golf Course.
“You’re simply not going to find a better human,” Rowe said about Bill Dunson.
The show, featuring Rowe’s trademark blue-collar banter — easily matched by Dunson’s easygoing, no-nonsense retorts — was a delight (including Rowe’s team accidentally locking themselves out of their vehicle in the middle of Rochester, and walking down Highway 12 as they figured out what to do.) So far, 3.1 million people have watched the episode.
After profiling Dunson and his late brother, Rowe and his team surprised him with a $5,000 cash donation, arrangements for groundskeepers to help maintain the course over the next few years, and a bronze statue honoring the late Jim Dunson on the 8th hole.
When half the town comes rushing out to surprise Dunson at the end of the episode, applauding and cheering for their friend, it makes you feel good to be a human being.
It turns out, Dunson had the same effect on Mike Rowe.
In a recent interview, Rowe was asked which person out of his 50-plus episodes and three seasons had really stayed with him. Rowe thought for a moment and gave a bit of a wistful chuckle, then began telling the story of Bill Dunson — how he and his brother decided to build a golf course and open it up to everyone.
Rowe said he had to find out what made Dunson tick.
“During the day I had a chance to simply ride around with Bill Dunson, and it just reminded me of my own grandfather, and the wisdom, just the straight up wisdom that’s baked into an 89-year-old-brain of a man who still rises early and makes the donuts,” Rowe told BuzzFeed News earlier this month. “Everything the guy said was just a gem. As the day was going on, I just thought, ‘Mike, you’ve got a good gig. You know, you’re gonna fill this guy’s box with cash, and he’s never gonna forget this day, and I’m never gonna forget this day.’ It was just a small, simple thing, but I’ll remember Bill Dunson for a long time.”
I reached out to Bill Dunson this week, and managed to catch him for a few minutes.
Mike Rowe was right. Dunson said he never will forget that day.
Dunson said he still gets choked up when he thinks about that sunny day when Rowe “returned the favor.” He had expected a simple television interview, not a full-on celebratory barbecue with a couple hundred grateful golfers, plus some seriously meaningful gifts.
“It was an awesome thing,” Dunson told me. “It was a hell of a big surprise.”
Even more powerful, Dunson said, was that recent BuzzFeed interview, when Rowe highlighted his story out of all the remarkable people he’s met.
“That just really and truly, that just did me in,” Dunson said.
Dunson continues to operate his free golf course. He’s planning a huge public birthday party for his 90th birthday on May 30.
“Is everyone invited?” I asked Dunson.
“Absolutely!” he replied. “Anybody.”
It’s been the story of his golf course, and his life.
Like Mike Rowe, Brian Mittge is also captivated by the bloody do-gooders in rural Southwest Washington. Drop him a line at email@example.com.