Bob Dunning, Class of ’73

alum of the month

Bob Dunning ’73 was a daily columnist and sportswriter for the Davis Enterprise for 54 years. He wrote an estimated 28,000 pieces for the newspaper, wryly chronicling life in “The City of All Things Right and Relevant.” In 2021, the community celebrated his career with a downtown parade.

Davisites were shocked to learn that the Enterprise had abruptly dismissed Bob in May 2024 when it dropped to publishing two days a week. Without missing a beat, Bob moved his column and local sports coverage to Substack, at

What's next?

Wow, this is a real wild ride with Substack. It's amazing how quickly I transitioned. My final day at the Enterprise was May 10, and that's also the first day I posted on Substack. And they've already listed me as a bestseller. I have almost 4000 subscribers now, just overnight. Now, those aren't all paid. They make a distinction between one or the other. But they say that their average is about 10% of subscribers are actually paid subscribers, and I'm at 25%. So I'm doing really well. And I'm stunned. Overnight, it just blossomed.

There's so many topics out there right now. There's just so many, and I love to write. Obviously, when I got told, I was stunned. I never thought that would happen. We’ve got four kids in college. But beyond all that, it was not having a column. Getting up every day, you're always looking around for column ideas. What can I write about today? Not having that to do was just such a blow. And then, boom, this was a gift from God. It was just out of the blue. I had no idea it would be — I guess I don't like the term “financially successful” — but it's equivalent at least to what was going on before. I've been made whole in a lot of ways, which is just wonderful.

Come fall, I'm still going to cover UC Davis football and basketball, as I've always done for the Enterprise. There won't be very much sports between now and then, but I'll go on the road with the team and cover every game, like I always have. That's a treat for me, but I think it'll be good for readership as well. Anything I was doing for the Enterprise, I'm going to do. Probably even more than I did for the Enterprise.

Do you think local news and commentary will gradually move either to media like Substack or to nonprofit models, and away from traditional newspapers?

Absolutely. It's interesting. I did the daily grind for 55 years and was really happy as a clam. I was never going to get rich, but my dad always said, don't mess up happiness. I was able to raise my family here, and in the early years I was a single dad with two really small children. They allowed me to work at home, which was unheard of back then. Because we were still in the days of hard copy, I had to deliver my hard copy to the paper. I typed it on a manual typewriter and packed the kids up in the car to drop it off. I look back on those days with great fondness, but it allowed me to be the kind of dad I wanted to be and still be a journalist. Every time a “better” job offer came along, I’d just get that pit in my stomach saying, no, don't leave. Because in those days, you were in the newsroom from three to midnight. What was I going to do with my kids? They were one and three. I'd be living in L.A. or Denver or some distant place where I didn’t know anybody. I’m going to do that for a “career”? It just never ultimately added up. And then at some point you realize you're a lifer and Davis is where I want to be. And Davis is where I belong.

But to answer your question, my work product and the work product of many other writers and sales people and composing people was going to pay the president and CEO of the company. It was going to pay various consultants. It was going to pay for newsprint. It was going to pay all the guys in the press room. It was going to pay all these different people, and at some point I'm going to get one little tiny slice of the pie. And I think that as newspapers continue to shrink because of a million things, writers are going to see, I can control my own destiny, my own fate, on a platform like Substack where I'm in charge and I'm getting paid for how many people I attract. For me, it's a wonderful opportunity. I love writing, and I'm trying to have a lot of variety, which I always did have. Hopefully, the reader doesn't say this column is just about politics or it's just about sports or it's just about whatever. It's going to be every subject known to man, I hope.

Do you think local newspapers still have the resources they need to fulfill their responsibilities to the public?

You hear a lot of, we need local newspapers. I really like the community newspaper level, especially in a town like Davis. People say, don't you one day want to work for the New York Times or the Washington Post or something like that? And I say, the audience in Davis is probably the toughest audience in the world. Half the people have a Ph.D. and the other half think they should. They're all smart. If I wrote a column about climate change, there's 15 people at UC Davis whose whole study is climate change. And they will write a letter to the editor saying this guy's an idiot, who is this guy talking about climate change? And it's that way in every subject. The world experts are right over there at UC Davis, and there are a lot of people that work for the state. I just wrote about Delaine Eastin dying. She was a Davis resident for 25 years, and she was the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of California. That's the kind of people who are in Davis. That's a tough audience.

You hear that community journalism is essential to keep democracy alive, and I think freedom of speech in a million different ways is essential to keep democracy alive. But I'm not convinced, when I look at the ownership of many papers these days, that the owners are even remotely interested in democracy. Their goal is profit. Their goal is not democracy or public information or freedom of speech or anything else. Nowadays, hedge funds own newspapers. To say that we need to preserve that model to preserve democracy is nonsense. I think I have a better chance to “preserve democracy” doing what I'm doing on Substack.

I'm afraid print journalism’s days are numbered. Even major papers are going down from daily to three days a week or two days a week. The whole model is heading for bankruptcy, I'm afraid. They're trying to please too many masters, and they can't figure out what's essential to a paper and what is not essential. Technology has defeated the newspaper model. The good news is we have a ton of information out there now, which is also the bad news because you don't know what you can trust.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in Davis and at the university over the years you’ve been writing about them?

Obviously size. We moved here in 1951 so my dad could go back to college. He hadn't finished college because of World War II. There were 3000 people in Davis, and I think there were 900 undergraduates at UC Davis. And 899 of them were men, mostly in ag. Our family pretty much doubled the population when we moved to town. And then I started 20 years later at the Enterprise. It's much more of a — I hate the term — but a bedroom community than it used to be. In 1970, but especially when we moved here, virtually everybody who lived in town was somehow employed in town. All their kids went to school in town. Now, I forget what the figure is, but a majority of employees of UC Davis don't live in Davis. As a result, you don't get the same cohesiveness in town.

I think the town is a lot less blue-collar than it used to be. It was never completely a blue-collar town because of the university. But there's much more wealth in town. People coming to Davis and buying $1,000,000 homes. With cash. I know the first home where we lived in Davis in 1951, brand new, it was about $10 or $11,000. That same home would probably be worth around $1,000,000 now, and it has priced out just a tremendous number of people. It's the city's fault for being such a great place to live.

Two of my daughters are currently at UC Davis, and another daughter has already graduated from UC Davis. My oldest daughter went to the University of Arizona for a year and ended up at Davis. The one who's now a junior went to Santa Cruz for two years and is now at Davis. And then the one who will graduate on Friday started at UC Davis. She had her eye on other places, but now she is so happy that she got into Davis and she's thriving there. She has a job at the Shrem. She has a job downtown, working at Pachamama as a barista, and she's a design major. And just in love with life. And so happy she stayed in Davis.

What sustains your affection for Davis?

As a writer, it's because it's a target rich environment. We are pretty full of ourselves. Sometimes, I'll get asked to speak to the Rotary Club in Woodland or Sacramento or somewhere else. And they love the Davis jokes. They don't all hate Davis, but they love to make fun of Davis. Like the People's Republic of Davis and all that stuff. I started this contest to come up with the Davis motto. It's a never-ending contest, but one time I wrote that second place currently was “Davis, Gateway to Woodland” and first place was “Davis, More Nuts than Winters.”

When we elected Julie Partansky to City Council, I used to call her Julie from Mars. What brought her to public attention was she lived downtown and the city had a plan to pave the gravel alleys. These alleys had a lot of potholes which would collect water in the winter, and she said there were tadpoles in that water. We can't pave that. And so I dubbed her campaign, “Save the Potholes.” She got elected, and she was just so much fun to write about. One time, I think she got tired of me calling her Julie from Mars, and so her attorney wrote me a cease and desist letter. He cited New York Times vs. Sullivan, which is actually a case that says columnists are pretty free to express their opinion without being worried about getting sued, especially if they're talking about public figures. He just threw that in there. I think he didn't realize I went to law school. I sent him a note back saying truth is an absolute defense in libel cases and I think she is from Mars. And then I looked at his letterhead, and it said “practice limited to aviation law.” Too funny, but she and I got along well.

I mean, Davis, one time we arrested this woman for snoring. We didn't actually arrest her. We cited her. She called me in the middle of the night, and she said I’ve got a story for you. I said you’d better have a story, it’s 2:00 a.m.! She comes over in her bathrobe with two little kids in her arms and shows me what looked like a parking ticket or a speeding ticket. It said “citation,” and, for the explanation, “audible snoring.” And I'm going, that's redundant. There's no such thing as silent snoring. She was in a duplex, and it just had cardboard walls or something. She was snoring, and I guess it happened every night. It was so bad that she was sleeping on the couch, her husband sleeping in the bedroom. And so she's sleeping on the couch right next to this thin wall, and the guy on the other side calls the police at one in the morning. They come out with their decibel meter, and she was in violation of the noise ordinance. And they cited her! They go knock on her door and give her this citation. It's the first person to ever commit a felony while asleep. It's kind of unbelievable, because when they were actually handing her the citation, she was no longer in violation.

I'd already filed my column for the next day, and I called my editor at 5:00 in the morning. I said, forget whatever I sent you. I’ve got a good one. You know, I just looked up at the heavens and said, thank you, God, I didn't know what I was going to write about today. My column went national, and I was on national TV. Somebody left a “snore police” hat and shirt on my doorstep. That's the kind of thing that’s an “only in Davis” kind of story.

If someone reading this profile has never read your column, which one column should they go read right now?

I have favorites, and almost all of them have to do with family. You know, when I took my oldest daughter off to University of Arizona after she and her brother and I were a threesome for 18 years. He had already gone off to Cal, and now I'm taking her to Arizona and coming back to an empty house. They were my roommates as much as they were my kids. That one would tell you a lot about me and how I feel about Davis.

Probably some of the columns about Julie Partansky would give you a good feel of how I feel about Davis. And even the last one, the column that didn't appear in the Enterprise, the one that's the first one on Substack, would tell you an awful lot about me, once you get past the part about how I got the shaft. The rest of it was about my time at the Enterprise and my time at Davis and all the opportunities that were presented to me.

I got to MC the “Bob Hope Show.” My kids got to pick Bob Hope up at the airport and ride in a car with him and then be there all through rehearsal. My daughter was eight years old, and she was writing out his cue cards for him. It was in the Rec Hall, where they played basketball. And, I mean, huge crowd. It was 40 years ago when Bob Hope was still big time, even though he was about 80 at the time. His representatives called me prior to him coming to Davis and said he needed some local jokes. So I wrote four or five jokes for him. I told him that there's a building on campus, Hickey Gym. And there's two parts to Hickey Gym, and one is called Upper Hickey and the other is called Lower Hickey. He had a lot of fun with that one, and I told him about a couple of coaches and a couple of funny stories. And so I'm off in the wings, after I introduced him. It felt like I had just introduced God. It was just unbelievable. And then he's out there telling the jokes, and I'm kind of off down the little stairs next to the stage, watching. He's telling these jokes and the place is going crazy. And I'm sitting there, I'm going, those are my jokes! He’s stealing my stuff! I didn't know I would have that reaction. I thought it must be hard being a writer for Colbert or any of those people.

I got interviewed by Colbert because of Julie Partansky. He came out to inspect the Toad Tunnel and do a story on it. All these things! I got to play tennis against Bobby Riggs. Bobby Riggs was the former Wimbledon champion. And then he came to Davis for a charity match, and I got to play him. At the time he was a household word in the country, because he had just played the nationally televised match against Billy Jean King. Those are just the kinds of things that happen in Davis and don't seem to happen anyplace else. And they ended up happening to me, which was just wonderful.

Why did you choose to attend King Hall, and what made you decide not to be a lawyer?

After college, I was out for two years. I was teaching tennis lessons part time and doing various things. Living in your hometown, you run into your parish priest or your Little League coach or your school principal. “What are you doing nowadays?” And you don’t have a good answer. You kind of make stuff up. And one day I got the idea to apply to law school. Now when I went out for a beer or pizza with my friends, people would come over and they’d say, that’s Bob Dunning, he's a law school applicant, like it was a full-time job. And now it was relevant, like I don't need to be anything else. You don't need to have a job. You're a law school applicant, like that's a real relevant thing to be in this town. And I figured I wouldn't get into Davis and then maybe I would apply to medical school and be a med school applicant.

I applied on the last day, which was May 1. Taking the LSAT, which I didn't study for, I went down to San Francisco to take it at San Francisco State. And at halftime, I was so sure how badly I had done, I went out looking for a Doggie Diner or something to have lunch. If they served beer, I was not coming back and taking the second half of the test. I didn't find the Doggie Diner. So I finished the test and did okay. It was a complete shock. But then the packet arrives from UC Davis. I was tossing out health center cards and housing cards and all this stuff, looking for the rejection. And at some point, it occurred to me, wait a minute. They're sending me housing cards? Why would they send me housing cards if they rejected me?

I remember the secretary in the Dean's office was Thelma Kido, and she was always so nice. There were 150 in the freshman class when I started in 1970, and I asked her, so how many applications did you have? She said, oh, about 15,000, something like that. And I'm going, okay, so if they accidentally sent the wrong packet one time in a thousand — that happens — then they would accidentally admit 15 people they didn't mean to. And I'm convinced I was one of them. What are they going to say to you when you show up on the first day? Would they say, oh, it's a mistake. We're sorry. I mean, look at your grade point average, for heaven’s sake. Did you really think you were getting in? My undergraduate GPA was 2.45. At that first orientation barbecue in the courtyard, all these people, they all went to Berkeley and Harvard and Stanford, and they all had four points or even higher than a four point.

By that time, I had gotten the job at the Enterprise as a sports editor. I didn't want to come out of law school with debt. I went downtown to Jack in the Box and Taco Bell and the Enterprise right in a row on G Street. Jack in the Box and Taco Bell did not hire me. I had no writing experience. I’d never worked for the Aggie or the high school paper or anything. I’d had to take what they called “bonehead English” at UC Davis. I never thought about writing for a career. I remember the first week of class, Dean Barrett took me for a walk in the Arboretum, and he said you can't have a job. The curriculum is . . . you can't have a job. I said, do you want to pay for law school for me? And he said, no, I can't do that. And I said, well, I really need this job.

I spent most of my time at the newspaper. That was back in the days when I had to go in, before I had kids. I missed a lot of class, to be honest. I still don't know how I got a J.D. I have no idea. I remember at graduation in Freeborn Hall, my mom and dad were so proud. They were graduating us alphabetically, and for many of my classmates, it was the first time they had seen me in three years. When you were about ten names away, you'd go up the stairs and wait your turn to go across the stage. They got into the Ds, and, in the early Ds, I saw people elbowing each other and whispering and kind of smirking. I went, what's going on here? Something's happening, and I'm not in on it. Then they announced my name and when I walked across the stage I got a standing ovation. For fun, I mean, it was for fun. But I got a standing ovation. And afterward I see my mom and she’s crying. She said to me, they love you, they love you. No, no, they were having fun.

By the time I graduated, I had three years of experience at the newspaper and had absolutely fallen in love with journalism. I loved writing. I loved especially having a column where I could have my opinion. I like sports writing, but covering games is relatively predictable. Having a column where you take on a subject and give your opinion and then you get reader reaction was just a lot of fun. I thought, gee, I really would need to quit the newspaper to bone up for the bar, but why am I going to take the bar? I want to work for the newspaper. So I just never took the bar and every year I was more convinced of my decision to not practice law. I don't look back with any regret. I might have made more money, but other than that I'm the happiest guy in Davis. I have had a truly wonderful life here. I raised my kids here, and just so many good things have happened.

Do you have any advice for current King Hall students?

It's an opportunity of a lifetime. It really is. I think about my undergraduate days, where my whole goal was to pass and get out, and all the courses I could have taken. My favorite was beekeeping, and it was really fun with the hives and everything. It wasn't in the political science curriculum, but I took it and it was fun. Now I look at what's going on in the world, and I wish I had taken world history so I would understand the Middle East and I would understand Eastern Europe. I don't know anything about any of those places and the same thing with law school. I mean, look at the courses and look at the faculty. You've got the best faculty in the country. I think ever since I was in school, I kind of saw the teachers as combatants almost. They're on the other side, and I'm just trying to pass. I’ve got to get through them to pass this class.

I should have been a kid in the candy store. Just saying, look, I can take tax and understand tax. No, I avoided tax. Oh, well, that's too many numbers. And property. Oh, property's so hard. So I would just tell them, immerse yourself, take classes that you don't think you should be interested in, or that might be extra hard. Really soak everything up like a sponge, because it's the opportunity of a lifetime. You've got the best faculty in the world. You've got a beautiful facility. You've got a university that supports you and wants you to succeed. It's all the ingredients for being real successful in life.

I encourage people to get into public service, run for office, make the democracy work, always make it a better place. Because you'll always make enough money. Get ahead by doing the right thing.

Primary Category