Lynn Dunning - Lancashire Woman of the Year

We honour the inspirational woman named Lancashire Woman of the Year who died before she was able to collect her award. Amanda Griffiths reports

The Lancashire Woman of the Year awards are a sparkling annual celebration of inspirational people who enrich our lives.

But this year’s event was tinged with great sadness. For the most important guest wasn’t there. Head teacher and International Soroptimist Lynn Dunning, from Darwen, lost her ten year battle with cancer just two days before she was to be presented with the award.

It says something about Lynn than 700 people attended her funeral and the word that came up time and again on cards and tributes was ‘inspirational.’ At just 55, Lynn - married to husband Brian for 18 years with two stepchildren and four step-grandchildren - managed to pack a lot into her life.

With indomitable drive and determination, she was responsible for turning around the fortunes of her school as well as managing to travel the world in a her two years as President of Soroptimist International, a movement she’d been involved in since becoming a member of the Ramsbottom branch 25 years ago.

‘She would have been so proud to have been awarded the title of Lancashire Woman of the Year,’ said Elizabeth Hughes, a fellow Soroptimist who’d worked with Lynn for many years.

‘She liked things to be recognised. She showed that in the numerous prize-givings she would hold at school for the children. They were for all sorts of things, not just academic awards. She liked people to feel they were valued.’

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At the same time, husband Brian, described her as very modest. ‘If you looked at her you would have thought she was very fragile, but she had a backbone of steel and her presence in a room was phenomenal,’ he said.‘I believe she won the award for all the work she did for school.’

Brian describes Lynn’s upbringing as ‘tough’ but she won a place studying geography at Manchester University and her first teaching job was at Tottington High School.

Although she’d trained in geography, Lynn specialised in art and drama and moved to Woodhey School in Ramsbottom where she became known for the quality of the productions she helped children stage. She became deputy head by the time she was 30.

She moved to Darwen Vale as headteacher ten years ago. ‘She really turned the school around,’ said Brian. ‘It was basically on special measures at the time.’

Lynn’s hard work and vision led to Darwen Vale becoming a specialist in engineering as well as the most consistently improved school in the borough, recording the best examination results ever seen this summer. The school is also part of the Building Schools for the Future project and will be rebuilt in the near future.

But she was determined the new building would keep its old as a link to the past. ‘She said they were not to build a warehouse with classrooms in,’ added Brian. It seems she won the argument, playing a major part in the new plans for the building, which sadly she won’t see realised. Pupils, however, will recognise her achievements on a tribute wall which will be dedicated in some way to dreams.

‘She was very visionary, looking at the child’s all-round education,’ said Brian. ‘She didn’t lump them together but would recognise each individual’s potential and she would always fight for the underdog.

‘She led from the front and liked nothing better than getting her hands dirty. She would never ask someone to do something she wouldn’t do herself and hated being penned down in the office with paperwork. She wanted to be out there where it was all happening.

‘She wasn’t just concerned with the academic side of things but knew she needed to tackle the social and family issues these children were dealing with.

‘I believe it was her drive and determination that got her through her illness. It was like she couldn’t be bothered with ‘this cancer’ - she had too much else to do.’

This included her work in the Soroptimists International, an organisation for professional women aimed at advancing the status of women worldwide.

She and Brian travelled extensively, visiting projects in Hiroshima, Pakistan and New Guinea among others. Both Brian and Elizabeth agree one of the things Lynn will be particularly remembered for is a small building in India.

‘She opened toilets in deepest India. We went there and they had actually had a plaque made for her,’ said Brian.‘The women and girls would get up in the morning and have to relieve themselves in the fields,’ explained Elizabeth. ‘But then they would have to wait until the evening to go again as the men would be working in the fields all day so modesty prevented them from going. Lynn knew what effect that would be having on their health.’

As well as introducing basic human rights like this Lynn helped train 40 female teachers in Pakistan to encourage women to send their daughters to school. Up until that time they would have been reluctant to do so because they did not want their daughter taught by a man. ‘She knew the only way to change things was by educating them,’ said Brian.

At the International Convention in Glasgow which marked the end of her presidency she and all the major players were interviewed. Poignantly one of the questions was: ‘What would you hope people would say about you when you have gone?’ Lynn’s answer was: ‘She didn’t know the meaning of the word can’t.’

Lancashire’s Woman of the Year 2009 will be missed by everyone but she leaves a legacy for all those whose lives she touched.

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