Activist Helen Dunn dies at 88 years old

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A civic leader from Flushing’s past died earlier this month and the community continues to fight for many of her ideals.

Helen Dunn, 88, died Jan. 14 in Las Vegas. Dunn was once vice president of the United Civic Council of Queens, the precursor to the umbrella group now known as the Queens Civic Congress. She was also vice president of the Coalition for a Planned Flushing, which sought to regulate the booming growth Flushing experienced in the late 1980s. She was the zoning and housing chairwoman of the Holly Civic Association and a member of the Committee to Save the Keith’s Theatre.

“I remember her most clearly as a woman who was participating in a demonstration in front of the empty RKO Keith’s Theatre shortly around the time after I became a councilwom­an,” said Julia Harrison, who represented the Flushing area from 1986-90. “It was a cold and windy day, and we had a meeting in the middle of Northern Boulevard.”

Harrison described Dunn as a strong and magnanimous woman who put her community above herself. She had been called the “first lady of Flushing” in local news articles, and fought to prevent overdevelopment of the neighborhood and to save the RKO Keith’s Theatre from development.

In one such article, dated July 1, 1993, and posted on the funeral home’s website, Dunn tells a reporter about the Civic Council.

“Most of what we do involves trying to preserve the identity of our neighborhoods. We’re taxpayers, homeowners and citizens who are saying we have the right to question what we want and don’t want,” she said.

In another article from three years earlier, Dunn was asked about her accomplishments.

“I’ve made people aware that there’s something really important in the Flushing community that we’re trying to save for following generations,” she said. “I got it that way and I’d like to see it left the same way. One of my accomplishments was helping to save the home of Lewis Latimer.”

For nearly a decade, Dunn had lived in Las Vegas to be near her daughter, Monica Caruso, who said Dunn died peacefully after sleeping for 29 hours.

“She was a great mother and a great lady, and it has been a great loss,” Caruso said.

Dunn was born in Flushing Oct. 27, 1924, and grew up in Corona before attending New York University and Hunter College for training in geriatric care.

She was married to the late George Dunn. They had three children.

Dunn’s husband was in the military, and Dunn operated a daycare center to help pay for a Catholic education for her children, summer camps and music lessons, Caruso said.

A visitation was held last Friday in Rego Park followed by a mass at Our Lady of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church in Corona.

She was buried alongside her husband at Calverton National Cemetery. She is survived by her daughter, Caruso, her sons Raymond and James Dunn, brother Neal O’Doherty, sister Amelia Margaret Cashdan and two grandchildren, Alexandra and Christopher Dunn.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Updated 9:02 pm, January 31, 2013
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