From the shadows into the spotlight

The Dunkls receive Creative Living Award from Permanent Endowment for Martha’s Vineyard.



Even on a night when they were being recognized for their contributions to the community, the Dunkls — Frank, Peter, and Heidi — shunned the spotlight. With a row of chairs open at the front of the room inside the Portuguese-American Club in Oak Bluffs, they chose to sit in the second row among friends.

“I’m honored and somewhat embarrassed,” Frank Dunkl told The Times just hours before he was to accept, along with his Chilmark siblings, the Ruth J. Bogan – Ruth Redding Memorial Fund Creative Living Award from the Permanent Endowment for Martha’s Vineyard. “We’re retiring people who don’t want to be in the limelight.”

On Tuesday night, with more than 100 people looking on, they had no choice but to bask in the spotlight as friends, a band mate, and a co-worker heaped praise their way.

Dunkl is a Czechoslovakian name. The family settled in New Rochelle, N.Y., and when Frank, Peter, and Heidi saw the changes there, they headed for Martha’s Vineyard in the 1960s. A half-century later, they’ve left a mark by doing their part to preserve the Island’s beauty.

“We didn’t come to the Island to change its character,” Frank Dunkl told the crowd to wild applause. “We came to preserve it.”

The Ruth J. Bogan – Ruth Redding Creative Living Award was established to remember the two women who, in the words of Emily Bramhall, executive director of the Permanent Endowment of Martha’s Vineyard, established it 34 years ago to connect donors with the nonprofit organizations that need their philanthropy. Today that modest $60,000 endowment has grown to $11 million, providing $6.3 million in grants and scholarships to the Island community since it was established.

“I suspect Ruth Bogan and Ruth Redding would be thrilled with what their original gift has led to,” Ms. Bramhall said.

Ms. Bogan had an independent and lively spirit, could fix anything, and coped with all types of problems, Ms. Bramhall said. “She was always learning, teaching herself sculpture, painting, three foreign languages, along with other subjects,” she said. “She had great energy, good taste, and generosity. She believed anyone could do anything.”

The Creative Living Award was established to recognize Vineyarders who embodied Ms. Bogan’s resourcefulness and skill, Ms. Bramhall said. “It is abundantly clear that the Dunkls are a fine match.”

‘No easy task’

The Dunkls have always done their giving “in the shadows,” outside the public view. They weren’t looking for praise, and they certainly weren’t looking for a party.

“We’re not big on social things,” Frank told The Times.

Ms. Bramhall said when she first approached Heidi to tell her they’d been selected for the award, she was met like a truck meets a wall. “She actually refused to accept it,” Ms. Bramhall said with laughs from the audience and knowing nods from the Dunkl trio. “Receiving awards was not their style. They’re humble people.”

Ms. Bramhall said Heidi told her about their grandfather, who refused to accept a civic award from the city of New Rochelle when they were children. “I knew this was going to be a challenge,” she said.

But armed with letters about Ruth Bogan’s legacy, what the endowment has done for the Island, and the list of past winners, Ms. Bramhall paid a visit to the Dunkls. “And here we are,” she said.

A history of conservation

Bob Woodruff, a former executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, brought a prop with him, a map titled “Absolute Development Constraints Martha’s Vineyard.” On it was a circle of land with conservation restrictions, including more than 23 acres of Dunkl property.

“Say the right thing, Bob,” Peter Dunkl joked from the audience.

The Dunkls arrived on the Island with a boatload of wisdom, attributes, and skills, he said. “Their road has been a long and difficult one tempered by hardship and war,” he said, noting that their father came to this country in the 1940s. From their mother and Uncle Frank, they learned principles of great strength, he said.

“These included being big at heart, big in spirit, big in endurance, big in kindness, big in learning, big in community, big in commitment, big in courage, big in creativity, and last but not least, big in conservation at home and in the world around him,” Mr. Woodruff said.

During a major development boom in the 1970s, the Dunkls resisted. “It hit the Vineyard hard, emphasis hard,” Mr. Woodruff said. That’s when the Dunkls put a conservation restriction on their 23 acres, and convinced neighbors in the North, Middle, and State Road areas to do the same on hundreds more, he said.

“All of this was infected by the notion of these humble people that they could simply protect their little watershed along Mill Brook, and it got out of control,” he said. “We feel very fortunate and love to have had you as neighbors this past half-century. And we look forward to loving you another half century.”

Band of brothers and sister

Julie Schilling, who knows the Dunkls from performing in the Vineyard Haven Town Band, in pit crews, and with the Vineyard Classic Brass, listed their attributes — “generous, unassuming, unique, ethical,” among them. “A little eccentric in a good way,” she added.

Ms. Schilling talked about her visit to their home in Chilmark and the long walk in from the road. “Part of me wanted to leave behind bread crumbs for the walk out,” she joked.

She described all they do to keep the 150-year-old town band alive and thriving. The Dunkl brothers started playing in 1983, and Frank became president a few years later. He’s still the leader of the band. Heidi does her part providing public relations and talking up the band, she said.

They’ve built containers to transport instruments and stands, provide light when necessary, and created programs, Ms. Schilling said.

“You rarely see one Dunkl without the other,” she said. “You can never just find one to talk to because you can never just find one.”

Ms. Schilling said she found it challenging to limit her talk to the Dunkls’ contributions to Island music without referring to their building talents, their entrepreneurial spirit, and their conservation efforts: “Like the Dunkls themselves, all are intertwined, which is their precious gift to our community.”

Working ‘in the shadows’

Alton Hardaway, who worked with the Dunkls for more than 30 years, made his way slowly to the microphone, hobbling with the aid of two canes. “Thank you, brother,” Peter said, reaching out and shaking his friend’s hand.

“I’m honored to be here and to be asked to speak on behalf of my extended family because that’s what they are to me,” Mr. Hardaway said. “This family is one of the humble groups I’ve ever, ever met. I mean I’ve never met anybody [else] that does not want to be known for what they do.”

Mr. Hardaway ticked off a half-dozen projects the Dunkls have been involved with on the Island, including restoration of the Flying Horses in Oak Bluffs, the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, and keeping Giordano’s in Oak Bluffs “looking like Giordano’s.”

“They glorify being in the shadows,” he said. “Nobody even knows who was responsible; it was these three right here.”

Mr. Hardaway also touched on their thoughtfulness, using materials that will last and won’t hurt the environment. He told a story of how they were commissioned to build a “hidden gazebo,” and the woman liked it so much, she had the trees cut down around it so everyone could see it.

“It was one of the most amazing jobs I’ve ever worked on,” he said.

Mr. Hardaway provided a window into their work days, sharing their nicknames for each other. “I can’t tell you if I was more tired from working or from laughing,” he said.

It was Mr. Hardaway who pulled the Dunkls up in front of the crowd to take a bow. They exchanged warm embraces and Mr. Hardaway kissed each one on the cheeks as the audience stood in approval. “They are far more important than you could ever imagine for this Island,” he said.

‘A Renaissance family’

State Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, presented the Dunkls with a proclamation from the House of Representatives for “enriching the quality of life on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Rep. Fernandes said he enjoyed researching the Dunkl family ahead of Tuesday’s event. He praised their efforts to preserve and promote the arts and culture on the Island.

“This has been very illuminating,” he said. It’s people like the Dunkls who make up the “fabric of the community,” Rep. Fernandes said. “The Dunkls are really like a Renaissance family.”

Even as he handed the family the House proclamation, Peter Dunkl took the opportunity to lobby the legislator. “We don’t get representation like we should,” he could be overheard telling Rep. Fernandes while those around him chuckled.

When they rose to accept their Creative Living Award, an Island rock on a board to signify “the permanence of the Island” and a $1,000 check, it was Frank Dunkl who did most of the talking.

He joked that the sibling trio sticks together because they are small in stature. “We feel there is strength in numbers,” he said.

When they arrived on the Island from New Rochelle, they were impressed by the character and rural charm of Martha’s Vineyard. They didn’t want to see it change like they saw the suburb of New York City lose its character.

“The New York area taught us that it’s very easy to lose what you have and not realize that you’re losing it,” he said. “But it’s impossible to bring it back.”

He called for a return to the ideals that make the Island great — the appreciation of culture, history, and diversity.

“We’ve become a very specialized society where people all think they need to specialize in one thing,” he said. “That is not the way America was built. America was built by people who were very resourceful out of sheer necessity. You had to be resourceful in order to survive.”

It is “culture and diversity that made America strong,” Frank said.

Peter Dunkl pointed out that 2018 will be the 150th anniversary of the town band, which was created by Civil War musicians, both Union and Confederate, who “united the country.” It’s important to remember that, he said.

“This country is divided right now,” Peter said. “As an Island, as a country, we should all pull together and work together.”

It was Heidi who pulled out the “Be a Philanthropist” award from the evening’s raffle entries. Vineyard Gazette photographer Mark Lovewell was the recipient, and will choose an Island nonprofit to receive the money.

Fittingly, the Dunkls joined other musicians to provide entertainment after the awards ceremony.

The trio was back where they were more comfortable, behind instruments and part of the larger group, making their contributions without fanfare and living by the family mantra.

“For generations it’s been our family policy to never knowingly hurt people and to help wherever possible,” Frank said.