“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did.
But people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
It says a lot about a man when the people he ran into at the convenience store where he bought his coffee every morning turn up at his viewing to pay their respects.
That was Charlie Dunlop.
Dunlop, a native of Donagmore, County Tyrone who lived in Havertown, died of a sudden heart attack on November 28, 2011, at the age of 45, leaving behind a wife, Nancy, a son, “wee Charlie,” now 7, and hundreds of people who could say, as one did, “Charlie Dunlop always made you feel important.”
“There are a lot of things you don’t remember, but one thing stuck in my mind, and that was meeting people I didn’t know at Charlie’s viewing who told me, ‘Oh, we know Charlie from the Wawa,’” says Nancy. “That was where he got his coffee every morning. We didn’t have a coffee maker and I said, well maybe we should get one, and Charlie said no, it was his thing to go to Wawa every morning and say hi to everyone, so we never got one. That’s the way he was, he was always laughing and telling stories, just pleasant to be around. After Charlie had passed, I had someone say to me that they thought he was so special because when you spoke to him you had all of his attention. He made everyone feel important.”
Even the customers of his electrical contracting business who flooded Nancy Dunlop’s mailbox with cards and letters, who cried with her on the phone. “They all said that he wasn’t just their electrician, he was their friend,” she recalls. “I’ve kept all those notes from my son so he could see how much people loved his father.”
Last Saturday, March 30, some of the people who loved Charlie Dunlop—there were 500 of them—paid $100 a ticket to attend a banquet to raise money to continue the work he did in the community. The opening ceremonies included everything that Charlie loved: family, GAA sports, Irish culture and music, and a united Ireland. Representatives from each of Ireland’s 32 counties carried their county’s flag into the ballroom of the Springfield Country Club along with jerseys from each of the county GAA teams. Charlie Dunlop was instrumental in founding the Tyrone Gaelic Football Club in Philadelphia which, after a hiatus of a few years, is being resurrected this year. His son was presented with a jersey from the St. Patrick’s GAA in County Tyrone which his grandfather brought with him from Ireland. It was the only jersey they had left and, ironically, it carried Charlie’s old number.
His old band mates from Clan Ceoil, John “Lefty” Kelly and Pat Kildea, played, as did Blackthorn. But the tunes that brought many to tears came from Bridget Reilly, playing Charlie’s favorite tunes, including “The Lonesome Boatman,” a slow air composed by Finbar Furey, on the tin whistle. That was Charlie’s instrument.
His friends originally started The Charlie Dunlop Memorial Fund as a scholarship fund for young Charlie. “But I didn’t feel comfortable with that,” says Nancy. “Charlie would have wanted to help other people and selfishly, I wanted people to remember him—people forget so quickly—so I wanted something in his name that would continue what he did.”
What he did: Sandy-haired, “cuddly”—“He would say a little cuddly, he wouldn’t say chubby or anything,” laughs Nancy—with a perpetual grin and impish twinkle in his blue eyes, Charlie Dunlop was, by all accounts, the first one to lend a helping hand when it was needed.
“Charlie always helped, he’d always given to everything, every cause, when he was asked—and most of the time no one had to ask,” says Nancy, who was “fixed up” with Charlie by her mother when Nancy was bartending at the family tavern, McFadden’s, in Upper Darby, and Charlie was their electrician. (“She said I had to meet this buy because he was so cute and I said, ‘Mom, if you like him I’m not going to,’ but she loved him to death and thought there was nobody better. She was right,” Nancy laughs.)
“He sponsored people here, he hired young Irish and trained them,” Nancy says. “He was genuine and kind, very friendly—he would have talked to anybody, honestly—made friends very easily and never wanted anything in return. He cared about people.”
Need someone to talk to at 2 in the morning? “Charlie was a 2 AM friend,” said Patricia Crossan, who met Charlie Dunlop when they were both new immigrants 25 years ago. “And after you finished talking to him you’d think everything would be fine because Charlie told you everything would be fine.”
Need a ticket back home to Ireland to see an ailing relative? It was Charlie Dunlop who wrote out a check without blinking. “We all think we would like to be like that, but when it came down to writing out a check for $1,300 most people would balk. Not Charlie,” says Jake Quinn, a contractor from Huntington Valley, who also grew up in Donaghmore. Though Jake is closer in age to Charlie’s dad, Sean, the two became very close friends, bonding over their mutual loves, including Gaelic football and, having both experienced “the Troubles” firsthand, the dream of a united Ireland.
“Most people remember Charlie for the incredible generosity he had with his time and his treasure,” says Quinn. “And you would have never heard anything like, ‘this man owes me this’and this man owes me that.’ That wasn’t Charlie.”
You apparently didn’t have to know Charlie for long before you succumbed to his personal gravitational pull. After his death, new friends from the marina on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where Charlie and Nancy kept their boat sought out Charlie’s parents in Ireland, Sean and Ann, to express their condolences. “They’d really only known him a few months but here were these people, ringing our house and telling us about the son we had,” says Sean, who, with his wife, flew to the US last week to participate in the memorial event. “But that was typical. Everyone who came to the viewing said he did this, or he did that. It was very, very comforting for us. I can tell you that if a father wanted a good son, we got him. He was good to everyone he met.”
Those same new Eastern Shore friends also held a memorial in which they set green, white, and yellow lanterns afloat on the Chesapeake, says Jake Quinn. “There was a beautiful little ceremony on the beach and the people there told me that until Charlie came, they really didn’t know each other, but they all gravitated toward Charlie because he was so much fun, so they got to know each other.”
By its very name, a memorial is meant to keep a memory alive. In Charlie Dunlop’s case, the Charlie Dunlop Memorial Fund is designed to keep a spirit alive. For as long as it lasts, Charlie Dunlop will still be lending a hand. “It will be an emergency fund, if something happens to someone like what happened to us, someone needs an emergency flight home, when something goes wrong,” says Nancy. “It’s actually perfect. It’s something Charlie would have absolutely wanted to be involved in.”