Since Phyllis Dunning retired from teaching English literature and composition 23 years ago, she’s continued to share her passion for the arts and nurture that interest in others as she volunteers at myriad art events in Winston-Salem.
“You gain much more than you ever could give,” she says. “It makes life exciting and interesting, so I love it.”
Dunning, 83, volunteers at the Winston-Salem Symphony’s Mary Starling performances for fourth and fifth grade students. At the Piedmont Opera, she helps feed the cast, hands out programs, and greets guests. She also volunteers at UNCSA events and at Reynolda House Museum of American Art. She is on the board of the Carolina Chamber Symphony Players and the Music & Arts Ministry at Centenary United Methodist. She’s served on the boards of numerous arts organizations through the years.
“Phyllis helps ANY organization she attaches herself to,” says James Allbritten, artistic director of Piedmont Opera. “Bottom line, she is one of the best ambassadors Winston-Salem could have. She is passionate about the arts and about education. You put arts and education together, and you have someone who is fearless about spreading an organization’s message.
“She is particularly passionate about introducing students to culture. I have seen her shepherd young kids through cultural experiences which they would never have known were it not for Phyllis.”
During her 33 years teaching high school in Forsyth County, Dunning says she would “strongly suggest and encourage students to attend concerts and operas and theater and art exhibits,” adding that occasionally she’d entice students with extra credit.
“I knew they wouldn’t remember specific things we learned in class, but going to performances—they would always remember that,” she says.
Many of her former students have gone on to have successful careers in the arts. Take Ben Folds, a 1984 Reynolds grad who’s now a multiplatinum singer, songwriter, and producer. During his December concert at Joel Coliseum, Folds continuously praised Dunning, mentioning how she let him write music for a John Keats poem for extra credit, and how it inspired his career in songwriting. Another former student, Howell Binkley, is the Tony-Award-winning lighting genius behind the Broadway smash “Hamilton.” To this day, he sends her opening-night tickets to his shows.
“I’m convinced the arts civilize us,” Dunning says, “and it’s through the arts that people can become more understanding, more compassionate, more peaceful. I think it feeds the heart, mind, and soul of mankind. To me, the arts aren’t just a frill. They’re an absolute necessity for a civilized, caring society.”