Silent at first, but not for long, Maureen Dunn stepped into a spotlight she would never have sought after she learned in 1968 that her husband was shot down over the South China Sea on Valentine’s Day as he piloted an unarmed Navy jet during the Vietnam War.
The youngest of 10 siblings, she wanted lots of children of her own, and instead found herself at 26 living in Randolph with a 1-year-old son, consigned to the limbo shared by those whose loved ones are missing in action.
Over the next 45 years, Mrs. Dunn became one of the most persistent and astute voices in the nation advocating on behalf of families of prisoners of war and MIAs. She founded organizations, met with one president after another, and kept a sharp focus on a question that was never answered: What happened to Lieutenant Joseph Patrick Dunn?
“The government is going to have a real problem with me if they don’t account for Joe Dunn,” she told the Globe as she sat in her Randolph home in 1973.
Mrs. Dunn, who was a founder of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia and was its Northeast regional coordinator, died Saturday in Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital where she was admitted while being treated for cancer. She was 72, lived in Randolph.
Although her husband’s remains were never found, she remained a tireless advocate for POWs, MIAs, and their families.
Mrs. Dunn marched in protests and parades, lobbied lawmakers on Beacon Hill, and attended hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington.
‘Our problem has been Watergated, Agnewed, Richardsoned, energy-crisisted, and Mideast-ed practically out of existence.’Maureen Dunn, at a US Senate hearing in 1974
She may have had studied to be a hair stylist, but Mrs. Dunn proved just as adept at crafting memorable sentences, as was the case at a US Senate hearing in January 1974. “Our problem has been Watergated, Agnewed, Richardsoned, energy-crisisted, and Mideast-ed practically out of existence,” she said.
Mrs. Dunn wanted to know what happened to her husband, but she also pushed for policies that would ease the legal and logistical burdens for families of MIAs in the future.
Beginning by creating the Lieutenant Joseph Dunn Committee in Randolph, she went on to cofound the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.
She traveled across the country on behalf of the cause and to the Paris Peace Talks in the 1970s.
In recent years, she also worked with the nonprofit Achilles International to bring disabled runners, including amputee veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, to the Boston Marathon and a Fenway Park gathering.
Joseph Dunn II of Hyannis, who started accompanying his mother to POW/MIA events before he was old enough to walk, said he told Mrs. Dunn during her final illness that her legacy as an advocate would endure.
“In my opinion, the amount of people she’s helped is overwhelming,” he said.
“She could have walked away and said, ‘I hate the government, I’m going to go live in Vermont,’ but she didn’t. I told her, ‘You created something out of it. Not a lot of people can say that.’ ”
Seven years ago, Mrs. Dunn told her life story in “The Search for Canasta 404: Love, Loss, and the POW/MIA Movement.” She coauthored the book with Melissa B. Robinson, an Associated Press reporter, and named it after the call number for her husband’s final flight.
Born Maureen A. Hoey, she was a daughter of Irish immigrants.
Her alcoholic father was absent from the home and her mother worked multiple jobs, including cleaning hospital bedpans and houses of affluent families, while raising 10 children in Jamaica Plain.
Even before she was old enough to take government courses at Boston College and Boston State College, Mrs. Dunn got a taste of politics by helping out her brother Francis, who worked on legislative campaigns.
“I was 12 years old,” she recalled in a 1980 Globe interview. “Later on I took classes in political science and worked in JFK’s campaign. I worked for Bobby Kennedy in 1968. I’m a political animal.”
After graduating from Holy Trinity High School in Roxbury, Mrs. Dunn turned down college scholarship offers to attend hairdressing school and help out at home with finances.
She was 22 on April 26, 1963, when she met Joseph Dunn on a blind date on the MBTA platform at Park Street Station. He was considerably tardy.
“I’ve never waited for anyone before,” she told him, “and I won’t again.”
They went dancing at a Jamaica Plain club, and won $5 in a twist contest. In 1965, they married.
After he was shot down, she found herself waiting for him again.
“I don’t believe that my husband is alive,” she told the Globe in 1991, after his status was changed to presumed dead. “But I’m still not a wife and I’m not a widow, either.”
She was an activist, however, and a devoted mother. “All the things that are great in my life are at some point attributable to my Mom,” her son said.
Mrs. Dunn also became a floral, interior, and horticultural designer. In 1980, at 38, she was the first woman elected to Randolph’s Board of Selectmen, and she later served on the town’s Design Review Committee.
She attributed her success in municipal politics to the years she spent fighting for information about her husband.
“I would make phone calls and ring door bells and the doors would close in my face, but I just kept pushing those doors and ringing those phones because I thought I had a right as citizen,” she told the Globe in 1980. “That’s why I ran for office. I want to be able to help any person who doesn’t know how to open those doors and ring those bells.”
“But I’m an optimist,” she added. “I have to be.”
In addition to her son, Mrs. Dunn leaves a sister, Eleanor Sheldon of Norwood; two brothers, John Hoey of Randolph and Frederick Hoey of Canton; and a grandson.
A funeral Mass will be said at 12:10 p.m. Wednesday in St. Mary Church in Randolph. Burial will be in St. Mary Cemetery in Randolph.
Mrs. Dunn was successfully treated for cancer 19 years ago and was determined to live as long as possible so she could spend more time with her son, her daughter-in-law, Beverly, and her grandson, Joseph Patrick Dunn III.
“She was a fighter and she put herself through amazing amounts of pain,” Mrs. Dunn’s son said of how she endured cancer treatments. “My son is 3 years old, and her goal was to make it to when he was 5 so he would remember her.”