Henry William “Bill” Dungey, Jr. was a lifelong advocate for justice, a champion of causes, and a towering presence who evoked warmth and kindness wherever he went. For Kent County school districts, those qualities made him one of the area’s finest negotiators, say local superintendents and administrators.
Dungey, former Michigan Education Association UniServ director, died unexpectedly March 17. He was 50.
Dungey represented more than 7,000 public school employees in Kent County. He worked directly with Kent ISD, Northview Public Schools, Forest Hills Public Schools and Kendall College of Art and Design.
“He was extraordinarily bright and kind and influential,” said Coni Sullivan, assistant superintendent for Human Resources and Legal Services at Kent ISD. “I always saw him as being a leader even among the other UniServ directors … He was a 6-foot, 7-inch gentle giant. He never raised his voice, never got angry. He knew when to use humor. There was something about Bill that made you want to collaborate.”
Forest Hills Public Schools Superintendent Dan Behm said he has never come across a finer UniServ director.
“More importantly, Bill was a great advocate for public education and those who work on the front lines of public education,” Behm said. “He was masterful at finding the common ground and the common good in any negotiating session, and also in sessions where there might be multiple viewpoints about something.”
Dungey took leave from his job Feb. 17, stepping back from a role that demanded 60 to 80 hours a week. He wanted time to care for his wife, Shereice Barner-Dungey, who was receiving treatment for breast cancer. He also resigned his post as president of the Professional Staff Association, which represented the employee rights of UniServ directors, attorneys and other professional MEA staff members.
In his notice to the professional staff at the MEA, he wrote:
“Man makes plans and God laughs. This has been on my mind so much over the last few days, Life certainly has a way, without notice, of reorganizing what you might believe are your true priorities.”
He and his wife of 15 years had one uninterrupted month together.
Leader of the Pack
At his funeral, Dungey was characterized as a born leader who loved debate, championing causes like civil rights and politics while using sitcoms and characters from popular culture as analogies to make a point. He led his first protest in elementary school when kids who were bused-in had a different playground than the non-bused kids.
“He was brought to the principal’s office and when he emerged, the kids were allowed to play on both sides,” proclaimed the “life sketch” prepared by family and friends as a tribute to his life.
It would be the first of many protests and many wins, though family members suspected he won the heart of the school secretary by calling her “Darlin’.”
Dungey graduated from Kalamazoo Christian High School in 1982 and enrolled in Kalamazoo Community College. In 1983 he was invited to enroll in Calvin College after taking it upon himself to discuss with the college administration about why Calvin had little experience dealing with students of color, according to the tribute.
He was hired as child care worker by Grand Rapids Public Schools in 1986, working with severely emotionally impaired students. He organized a track team and served as lead coach, making it possible for many students to participate in the Special Olympics Track and Field Day in Grand Rapids for thefirst time.
Bill returned to Calvin to complete his education. He graduated and went on to Grand Valley State University to attain a master’s degree in public administration. He continued at Harvard University’s elite International Trade Union Program and finally at Northeastern University’s Doctorate Program in Law and Policy.
He was elected in 2010 as president of the Professional Staff Association, the first African American to hold the position that represents the employee rights of UniServ directors, attorneys and other professional MEA staff members.
A Giant of a Man
Dungey’s impact on the region includes the creation of template contract for Kent County districts, which included the first-ever teacher health insurance contribution.
Northview Public Schools Superintendent Mike Paskiewicz said Dungey knew how to handle difficult issues.
“Bill always presented an aura of professionalism, integrity, and a deep respect for other people. He argued about the right things and always exhibited ethical behaviors regardless of how difficult the issue,” Paskiewicz said. “He did all of this while never taking himself too seriously, yet taking what he did for others very seriously. Bill was a true advocate for public education and for the professionals who chose public education as a vocation. He helped make me a better educator, a better leader and a better person. I am humbled and honored to call him a friend and a colleague.”
Behm said the last six years have been challenging economic times for public education.
“Bill understood that, and he was a partner in trying to help school districts navigate through these difficult times. He did that in a way that always protected the dignity of the public school employees,” Behm said. “Bill really understood that his work was to make sure the adults who worked in schools were well served because those adults work with children every day.”
Dungey was honored in 2010 with a Giants Award from Grand Rapids Community College for helping the Kent County Education Association partner with the Salvation Army’s Booth Family Services’ Angel Baby Initiative, which donates diapers, baby food, car seats, toys and educational items to infants in need.
“Bill was a giant of a man who was always fair and honest, a negotiator who worked hard to find a win-win solution to the many difficult situations with which we’ve been challenged during these most difficult times, said Kent ISD Superintendent Kevin Konarska. “His towering presence was always a welcome sight at the bargaining table, as his imposing height was overshadowed only by the size of his heart and his overwhelming desire to do what was right for all involved. He will be missed.”