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Somebody Give This Guy a Genius Grant

Ken Dunn embodies an American ideal of intelligence, an extraordinary melding of farmer and philosopher. He just might be the smartest man in the city. And he grows magnificent tomatoes.

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Ken Dunn talks Plato from the cab of his ten-wheel truck while he runs a sprawling nonprofit that recycles, feeds the hungry, and creates organic gardens in vacant lots. He embodies an American ideal of intelligence, an extraordinary melding of farmer and philosopher. He just might be the smartest man in the city. And he grows magnificent tomatoes.

“The Republic is about how society could be arranged to accomplish the good, the true, and the beautiful,” says Dunn, pictured here at one of his South Side recycling yards.

The ongoing manure situation says a great deal about what really matters to Ken Dunn. Since 1972, he has run a nonprofit organization called the Resource Center, and for 17 years one branch of the center held the contract for removing manure from the stables used by the Chicago Police Department. Dunn kept the contract for so long not because it paid off particularly well but because it helped bolster another of the Resource Center’s main activities, making compost. The center uses restaurant kitchen trimmings, waste materials from landscaping companies, and other natural detritus to create organic growing material, but-and centuries of experience prove this-for rich, delicious-to-worms compost, nothing beats . . . well, you know.

For a long time, the police horses had been providing the Resource Center with more than 100 cubic yards of manure every month, a sizable contribution to the more than 3,000 cubic yards of compost the center produces each year for use in its organic farms and for reselling to gardeners. But three years ago, a more conventional waste removal company underbid the Resource Center for the relatively small job-a change, Dunn says, that saved the city about $40 a month.

And the thing about Ken Dunn is, he doesn’t mind competition, or seeing the city look after its resources, or even lost revenue. What he minds, he says, is that the company that took over the job started trucking the manure to a landfill, rather than turning it into the plant-feeding gold that it was meant to be.

In other words, some perfectly good waste was going to waste, an affront to what is perhaps Dunn’s main driving conviction. In all his endeavors, he seeks to promote a “sustainable” society-that is, one that can continue indefinitely “without diminishing the opportunity of future societies to take pleasure from our planet,” he says. This means not taking more than our fair share. It means, to put it in kindergarten terms, putting things back where you found them.

His near-religious pursuit of this ideal-this living in close accord with his deepest personal convictions-is not without costs and consequences. After the Resource Center lost the contract, he felt compelled to speak with decision makers in the city’s Department of the Environment. Those conversations did not go well, and eventually damaged some longtime friendships. But the rewards of his well-examined life-the pleasures, even-make some sacrifices well worth the effort.

Dunn’s noble aims are not what make him the smartest man in Chicago. Many environmentalists, activists, and optimists share his basic goals. But few have undertaken advanced study in philosophy at the University of Chicago. Fewer still have successfully navigated the city’s bureaucracy, persuading it to hand over large pieces of empty land, free, to raise healthful produce for the benefit of the citizenry. And fewer still spend their days operating a ten-wheel diesel truck, the cab of which serves as their main place of business. Dunn embodies a sort of American ideal of intelligence, an extraordinary melding of farmer and philosopher, of city contractor and iconoclast. He is a very, very smart man.

“What I like about Ken is his holistic approach to the challenges we face,” says Saddhu Johnson, a special assistant to Mayor Richard M. Daley and the city’s new “greening guru.” “He is visionary. He is innovative, and he has the passion and enthusiasm and energy to implement the vision.”

He is tenacious, too. When the manure contract comes due later this year, he says, he will underbid his competitor, though it will make the Resource Center’s profit razor thin. He will do it because it is the right thing to do. Because although it is horseshit, in some senses it is our horseshit, owned by the citizens of Chicago, and it ought to be put to our good use.



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