Sam Dunlap, who died Saturday at age 85, was a father figure and mentor to countless Colorado Springs men.
Dunlap played first base and outfield for the city’s first all-black semi-professional baseball team, the Brown Bombers, who fought for racial equality on the baseball diamond. He and his teammates won back-to-back Colorado Springs City Baseball League championships in 1949-50, stunning their white competitors, even as Jackie Robinson was battling racism as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Dunlap’s legacy, though, is his decades of devotion to the city’s youth, friends said.
“His whole life was dedicated to the youth in the Hillside neighborhood, south side of town,” said Kenneth Callum, who met Dunlap in 1968. Callum was in seventh grade at South Junior High School, and Dunlap had just become Colorado Springs School District 11’s first community liaison. “He poured his whole life into it.”
Dunlap graduated from Palmer High School in 1951, worked as a truck driver for Ace Disposal until 1964 and then worked his way to a supervisor position for Denver Equipment Co., says his biography in the high school’s alumni hall of fame. But it was when he became a community liaison that his “real talents were unleashed.”
During subsequent decades, he coached sports, led youth education programs and served on community boards. He was the district’s first black baseball coach.
“The adjectives to describe Sam are as varied as the people whom he has influenced to lead better lives,” the biography says. “He is described as a faithful and loyal friend, a dedicated worker, an honest and caring person filled with compassion for kids, a mentor of not only students but teachers, and a builder of young people’s dreams.”
Callum created the Sam Dunlap Middle School All City Basketball Tournament in 2004, “honoring him for all that he has done personally for that community, and pretty much, for me,” he said. Callum was working as the city’s recreation supervisor.
“He is our mentor, our hero, our icon — our example of what we wanted to be when we came up,” Callum said. He described Dunlap’s influence as “a lava flow that he put together that we rode to success.”
In 1970, the year that state Rep. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, graduated from high school, Dunlap recruited him to play on a fast-pitch softball team for which he was a player-coach. A few years later, Exum began working as a teacher’s aide at South Junior High School.
“He’s always been like a mentor to me — an encourager, a father figure, a friend,” Exum said.
As a mentor, Dunlap wasn’t afraid to use tough love.
“He had a stern hand, too. If they weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing, he would get on their case,” Exum said. “Tough love is the love that you sometimes don’t want, but you need it.”
But he firmly believed in second chances — and third and fourth chances — and remained in many people’s lives long enough that he “mentored your kids and your kids’ kids,” Exum said.
Exum said he last spoke to Dunlap a few weeks ago. During that phone call, Dunlap said, “I want to know what I can do to help you,” Exum recalled.
“I said, ‘Sam, you’ve passed the torch. You set the example. You set the tone for what we should be doing as community and reaching back and helping others.’
“I could hear in his voice he wanted to continue to help. He wanted to continue doing something — raising funds to help a group of kids that needed some uniforms or needed some money to go to a camp. Or needed money for school. You could hear it in his heart, and I just told him, I said, ‘Man, you deserve the rest that you’re getting now, because what you’ve done has multiplied over and over again in this community.’”
Dunlap “sacrificed a lot for other people,” said Tony White, who was in seventh grade at South Junior High School when he met Dunlap in the ‘70s.
“One thing Sam did that nobody else could do is that he could find the greatness in everybody else, even if they didn’t realize it until later on in life,” White said. “That’s what Sam did. I mean, just imagine that. He could look at you as a seventh-grader and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to be great one of these days,’ and he would basically kind of mold you to be great.”
Dunlap was so smart and so invested in the community that he could have been mayor, White said.
Elwood Henson said he thought of Dunlap as Mr. Colorado Springs. Henson grew up around Dunlap, who was his mother’s uncle.
Henson recalled “the days of him picking me up at 5:30 in the morning on the garbage truck on a Saturday — boy, I looked forward to it, and if I missed him, I tried to chase him down.”
Dunlap deeply valued the work ethic and emphasized “the rewards of your efforts,” Henson said.
“He is by far the person that I would give the most credit to for giving me a sense of guidance, direction, a purpose in life, because we have one,” Henson said.
Dunlap often proudly brought up the day Henson graduated from Regis College in 1977.
That day, Dunlap had “the most impressive, inspirational smile that I had ever seen out of him coming towards me, like a glimmer of light that just smacked me in the face,” Henson said.
In 2014, the Brown Bombers were inducted into the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame.
“It’s a miracle,” Dunlap told The Gazette at the time. “Here I am, 80 years old, and I’ve got tears in my eyes. It makes me feel wonderful. It’s such a miracle.”
The team, “one of the most cherished parts of the city’s sports legends and history,” played in the Colorado Springs City Baseball League, “a very popular league prior to the professional Colorado Springs Sky Sox coming to town in 1950,” says a biography of the team on the hall of fame’s website.
“The Bombers learned to play on their own with makeshift balls, gloves and equipment, not in organized leagues taught by experienced coaches using new equipment and uniforms as the whites enjoyed. Several players were later honored for their achievements and courage.”
A formal viewing will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at Angelus Funeral Home, 1104 S. Circle Drive, Dunlap's obituary says. All are welcome to attend a service celebrating his life at 10 a.m. Saturday at Relevant Word Ministries, 1040 S. Institute St., followed by a burial at Evergreen Cemetery and a reception.