Tornado nearly killed him, but Wayne State official says of experience, 'I wouldn't trade it for anything' -
Published Wednesday, February 12, 2014 at 12:00 am / Updated at 12:27 pm
Tornado nearly killed him, but Wayne State official says of experience, 'I wouldn't trade it for anything'

WAYNE, Neb. — John Dunning's first challenge came in the intensive-care unit, fighting hallucinations and making a conscious decision that he would keep breathing.

He took it a few painful minutes at a time. He kept breathing.

As he woke from a medically induced coma, Dunning made his next decision — to live.
Not just stay alive, but really live.

The chief information officer for Wayne State College was left broken by the EF-4 tornado that struck Wayne on Oct. 4. He was put back together with surgeries, rods and hard work.

He walks slowly with a cane now. He is splitting his time between his job and physical and occupational therapy appointments. Right now it's more therapy than work.

But he's back. He's laughing. He's grateful.

"I wouldn't trade it for anything,” Dunning said. “I had a phenomenally beautiful look at humanity, and I'm never going to forget that.”

Despite the pain and uncertainty, Dunning said the tornado left him a man changed for the better.

In a press conference Tuesday, he said the whole experience was both dark and beautiful. He thanked all the people who helped him, from the storm chasers who helped save his life to the friends who sent grocery bags full of get-well cards to the therapists who pushed him to stand and walk again.

The whole thing hasn't changed what he wants out of his life, Dunning said. He loves his work and singing and his wife just the way he did before. But it has changed his outlook.

“Some things simply aren't worth worrying about,” he said. “People are pretty important.”

Dunning and his colleague Michael Anderson were coming home from the airport after attending a conference in Chicago when they heard there was a tornado on the ground.

They were looking for it as they drove toward the Wayne campus. Neither of them recognized that they were driving right into it.

It was unlike any tornado they'd ever seen before, wrapped in rain. They pulled off into a ditch when they saw debris fly across the highway. Dunning doesn't remember much between the ditch and waking from a coma 12 days later to see injuries from his brain to his legs. There have been several surgeries since then and months of rehab. He is still struggling to regain the use of his left hand.

But he's home, and he's happy. He was greeted to a welcome home parade – “everyone should get a welcome home parade once in their life,” he said – and he was blown away by the support.

Dunning has always seen that sort of beauty in life, and his colleagues are not surprised to see how quickly he's recovering, said Jay Collier, spokesman for Wayne State.

“John's been that way ever since I've known him,” Collier said.

Dunning is still adjusting to the idea that he's an inspiration. He just feels like a guy trying to put his life back together, and he doesn't dwell on the things he now considers in the past. He also hasn't spent much time wondering why this happened to him in the first place. “What if” questions doesn't yield results, he said. The only question that matters is what he's going to do about it.

He's already answered that one, definitively.

He's going to live.

Contact the writer: Kate Howard Perry    |   402-444-3185    |  

Kate writes about Nebraska's community colleges, state colleges and university system.

Teenager arrested after woman's purse is snatched outside Omaha store
Man, 21, shot in ankle while walking near 30th, W Streets
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs, police say
Keystone XL pipeline backers blast ‘political expediency’ as foes hail ruling to delay decision
Dems criticize governor hopeful Beau McCoy's ad in which he strikes a Barack Obama doll
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
High court denies death row appeal of cult leader convicted of murder
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Police seek public's help in finding an armed man
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
A voice of experience: Ex-gang member helps lead fight against Omaha violence
Church is pressing its case for old Temple Israel site
OPPD board holding public forum, open house May 7
The thrill of the skill: Omaha hosts statewide contest for students of the trades
< >
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »