Roger Dunwell, owner of famous Haitian hotel, succumbs to cancer

   Roger Dunwell
Roger Dunwell

Steven Dunwell / Dunwell family


Just after a monster earthquake ripped through Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, a worried Roger Dunwell, in South Miami, connected with his daughter by phone at the family’s hotel outside Port-au-Prince.

Melissa Dunwell Padberg reported that part of the 60-year-old Villa Creole, on a hill in the upscale Petionville neighborhood, had collapsed.

Calmly, methodically, as was his nature, he helped her figure out what to do, starting with evacuation and a head count.

Her father “knew every inch of the place better than anyone,’’ said Padberg.

Villa Creole will be Dunwell’s final stop before loved ones scatter his ashes on a Haitian beach. Born March 24, 1944, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Roger McClure Dunwell died at home in South Miami on Feb. 29.

After a memorial service in Coral Gables on March 24 — which would have been his 68th birthday — Dunwell’s ashes will return to the hotel for a second service on March 28.

To Dunwell, the 70-room Villa Creole was much more than a building or a business.

“The hotel is where his heart was,’’ his daughter said. “He was able to not just make it a success, businesswise, but he developed a strong bond with all of the employees. It became a family for him. It was really where he felt most at ease…He was really proud of his accomplishments.’’

Dunwell grew up in Poughkeepsie, where he attended Oakwood Friends, a Quaker high school, before earning a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, then a law degree from New York University.

At Oakwood, he met 13-year-old Ariel Assad, whose parents ran Villa Creole. They’d sent their daughter to the United States during the dangerous regime of Haitian dictator Francois “Papa Doc’’ Duvalier.

“It was love at first sight,’’ their daughter said. The couple married in 1965 and the union lasted until Ariel’s death, also from cancer, in 2004.

Dunwell later married Laura Kefalidis, who survives.

A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, based largely on his paternal Quaker heritage, Dunwell used his legal education during alternative service as a Robert F. Kennedy Fellow in Texas, to work on farmworker rights.

When his obligation ended, Dunwell took a job with the relief agency CARE in Haiti, venturing into the provinces, sometimes on horseback, with food and medical supplies.

He fell in love with Haiti, said his younger brother, Boston photographer Steve Dunwell, and developed contacts that “gave him a breadth of knowledge that few could match. He could provide a safe haven and introductions. He was a connector of people. He helped so many.’’

In Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest country, Dunwell supported hospitals, schools and orphanages, and performed countless random acts of kindness, his loved one said.

“During his years in Haiti, he lived through dictatorships, free elections, military occupations, and international embargoes, all of which made running a hotel very challenging,’’ said his sister, Fran Dunwell, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Through it all, he “managed to keep the generators running, the water flowing and the hotel guests fed.’’

Roger and Ariel stayed in Haiti until 1976, when they returned to Poughkeepsie. Dunwell joined a law firm and practiced family law. But five years later, they returned to Haiti with two daughters, and took over the hotel from Ariel’s parents.

By then, Villa Creole was long established as one of Haiti’s top hotels, a gracious, art-filled oasis for journalists, diplomats, heads of state, business executives and relief-agency personnel.

Guests found First World cleanliness and computer-age amenities. They enjoyed rum punches at the bar, tropical-fruit breakfasts at poolside tables, and Roger Dunwell’s personal commitment to excellence.

Dunwell spoke flawless Creole and French. He learned to fix everything from the hotel’s plumbing to the kitchen appliances. He loved flying his single-engine plane over the countryside, and puttering with it at the airport.

Mindful of Haiti’s political volatility, “he never talked politics with anyone who would be influenced,’’ Padberg said, although “people knew where he stood…He never had enemies. Ever.’’

To his staff, he was always Monsieur Dunwell.

“They will tell me he felt like a ‘papi,’’’ Padberg said.

In 2001, Dunwell learned he had breast cancer, rare in men. From then on, he shuttled between Haiti and South Florida, where he cared for Ariel, who had lung cancer. In Florida, Dunwell joined a cancer support group, and attended Coral Gables Congregational Church.

After a seven-year remission, doctors found Dunwell’s cancer had spread. Ariel died. Then came the earthquake.

No one at the hotel was seriously hurt, but soon injured people began showing up from elsewhere. The parking lot turned into an infirmary lit by car headlights, with a U.S. paramedic in charge.

Dunwell didn’t flinch when his daughter turned hotel linens into bandages, and broke up the furniture to make stretchers.

Miami-Herald Caribbean correspondent Jacqueline Charles recalled that “from his sick bed, Roger was trying to help us fly into Haiti from the Dominican Republic. The hotel soon became a lifeline for reporters,’’ who slept on the lawn and used the Internet free of charge.

“He loved Haiti,’’ Charles said. “Even in his own battle, he worried about the country.’’

Dunwell “was desperate to go back after the earthquake,’’ his sister Fran said, “but he had to be very careful about what he was breathing, and there was a cloud of dust over everything…Against doctors’ orders, he went for a farewell visit around Christmas,’’ in a wheelchair.

In addition to his wife, siblings and daughter Melissa, Dunwell is survived by daughter Cassandra Dunwell of Washington, D.C.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in Dunwell’s memory to Nos Petits Freres et Soeurs,; Hope for Haiti,; Project Medishare,; the Cancer Support Community of Greater Miami,; or International Firefighters Assoc.,

A memorial services will be held at 3:30 p.m. March 24 at Coral Gables Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, 3010 DeSoto Blvd., Coral Gables.


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