Ex-Bank Thief Delbert Dunmire Busts Loose with a Classy High School Reunion in the Bahamas

updated 08/31/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/31/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Delbert Dunmire likes a good party. So when the Punxsutawney, Pa., high school class of '52 decided to have a 35th reunion, Dunmire offered to do the honors. First he gathered his former classmates and their spouses for an eight-bus, 2½-hour convoy—led by Dunmire in his cherry-red Rolls convertible—to the Pittsburgh airport. There they settled into a chartered wide-body jet and three smaller craft (two of them Dunmire's) for a flight to Miami, Fla., where the 450 partygoers boarded the cruise ship Carnivale for a three-day loop to the Bahamas and back. Except for gambling losses incurred in Nassau's casinos, Dunmire, a Kansas City multimillionaire, picked up the entire tab for the $500,000 shindig. "I like a good time," he says. "I've always enjoyed having a whole group go out, especially those who maybe don't get to do this very often."

Dunmire's generosity actually stems from more than just a yen for good times. It has to do with a bank he robbed when he was 23, his imprisonment for two years, financial troubles with the business he later founded and, he says, a mother who never lost faith in her errant son. The Love Boat bash was only the latest grand gesture from a small-town boy who made good. Buoyed by the success of his $20 million aircraft-parts firm, Growth Industries Inc., Dunmire, now 53, in the past year has pledged about $2 million to charities, not including gifts he's slipped to friends and causes in need of a quick fix. Vowing he won't hoard his money, the hefty, gray-bearded entrepreneur today likes to quote the Bible: "For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

The son of a day laborer, Dunmire grew up in Cloe, near Punxsutawney. He recalls his father walking the railroad tracks in search of coal to heat the family home, even though his parents, now deceased, always tried to share whatever they had with family and friends. Dunmire decided early that he did not want to remain poor. "When I was 8 or 10 years old," he says, "I made up my mind to be wealthy and drive a Rolls-Royce." By the time he graduated from high school, he had a '52 Chevy convertible and was headed for a short-lived stint at the University of Buffalo to study medicine. "I majored in beer drinking and minored in social life," he says. "So I left before they asked me to."

Restless and disappointed in himself, Dunmire joined the Air Force and became a fighter pilot. He also ran up $5,000 in gambling debts, which led, he says, to the biggest mistake of his life. On an October day in 1958, Dunmire left Schilling Air Force Base in Kansas, drove to nearby Abilene and robbed a bank of $2,461. Twenty-two minutes later he was arrested, and in a matter of days he was sentenced to 50 years.

"I was humiliated," says Dunmire, who considered suicide while jailed. Watching fellow convicts win release one year only to return to prison the next, he says, "was devastating," and this set him on the road to self-improvement. He read a lot and made friends with parole officers, which paid off when his sentence was commuted in 1960. After studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Kansas, he opened a machine shop in his Kansas City garage in 1966, making small parts for Bendix, Bell Labs and eventually TWA and other airlines.

Although overexpansion in the late '70s almost cost Dunmire his business, he is again prosperous. And still unconventional. Last year the entrepreneur and his fiancée, Debbie Lunsford, then 29—they wore $5,000 clown outfits to their engagement party—invited all of Kansas City to their wedding. Thousands attended, and Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Bobby Rydell provided the entertainment.

Dunmire decided that similar fanfare was in order for his Punxsy High reunion. In its final stages the party required a staff of 50 to coordinate, and at least one couple thought the invitation was a hoax. But the ship, the planes and the lobsters were real, as was the admiration expressed for Dun-mire's turnaround. "It takes a lot of moxie to pick yourself out of the dirt," said former classmate Donald Swan-son. And how was the Bahamas trip? "Great. Fabulous. Marvelous. Wonderful. Awesome. Tiring," said Bill Ferko.

Dunmire said that his life truly turned around only last year, when he ran across a letter from his mother to a Kansas parole officer. "Delbert has begged our forgiveness," his mother wrote, "and one day he will prove to us he will be the man we want him to be." "That stopped me cold," he says, "so I decided to see what I could do for society."

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