Kiwi bloke’s 17 love letters in 17 weeks wooed Swiss miss across the globe

IN THE interests of fairness and balance, that 101 of journalism, Our People set out to unearth someone from within Rotorua's ranks whose homeland maintained wartime neutrality.

Our reasoning was that having featured those from both sides of the divide that split Europe between 1939 and 1945 (Our People, April 2 and 30), it was only right a neutral nation's representative should have their say.

It was Swiss-born Ursula Dunn we honed in on and how rapidly she shattered our illusion that hers was a country that shunned the call to arms.

We make it clear here that as the equivalent of a Kiwi baby boomer Ursula wasn't around at the time, not born until the year after the war's end, but she recounts how her mathematician dad spent the war years as an armed-to-the-teeth militia officer, holed up in the mountains dividing Switzerland from hostile Italy.

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"Switzerland was like a little hedgehog" is her analogy for its political positioning.

Nor, as is generally supposed, did the Swiss live in the lap of luxury while the rest of Europe starved; strict rationing extended well into Ursula's childhood.

Here endeth the history lesson and the point where we return to our core profiling business with Swiss-German speaking Ursula our subject matter.

Her Rotorua arrival was prompted by a plot most romance writers would struggle to contrive.

Her 1977 Christmas present came wrapped as a Kiwi bloke with a boat. His name was Bryce Dunn and she was staying next to his parents' Feilding home while taking a "look see" at this end of the planet.

"He took me up the Whanganui River where Bethlehem intrigued me, we went out a bit but for me that was that."

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Her Kiwi friends took her tiki touring: "We even went on a guided tour of the Kawerau mill, I was asking awkward questions like 'why is the river coming out black?' that's typical me."

With Bryce back at his job as a BP rep in Rotorua, it was logical they'd meet up again.

"I told him I was on my way home, he said 'I'd like you to come back'. I thought 'how sweet'. He wrote me 17 love letters over the next 17 weeks pleading with me to return. I thought 'why not? If it all goes pear-shaped I can always come back'."

She never has - except to visit. "He became the love of my life."

There's a whole chunk of Ursula's pre-New Zealand life we backtrack to here.

After a conventional upbringing and completing a commercial studies course, her feet itched.

With a brother in San Francisco it was the logical place to go - what wasn't so logical was that she'd rub shoulders with Steve McQueen. With her model sister-in-law an extra in Bullet, a movie McQueen directed and starred in, Ursula spent time in his company and has the pictures to prove it.

But movie sets weren't for her. "Believe me, they're very boring places."

She turned to nannying, sandwiching in English lessons. "I wasn't meant to be working, people were getting caught so after 10 months I called it quits and went home."

We suggest that surely those English classes didn't teach her a phrase like call it quits? "No, no that's the New Zealander in me."

In Switzerland she landed a dream secretarial job with the Defence Department, then busy buying fighter planes. "France, America, Sweden were vying to sell them to us, I'd be at all the demonstrations taking notes, going up with the foreign visitors for stunning looks at the Matterhorn."

However, her affinity with the States remained. "Every holiday I'd buy a Greyhound ticket and stay four weeks."

Ursula was in Yellowstone National Park when she heard two girls "talking funny English". They were Kiwis from Feilding and Invercargill who persuaded her to forget the Wyoming rodeo she'd been heading to and join them in San Francisco.

"I was torn but San Fran had become my town, we had a ball, they said I should come to New Zealand." She quit her job, by then she was exporting kitchenware, and by a circuitous overland route through Asia and Australia, arrived mid-December. Her Feilding friend invited her to stay, cue Bryce's Christmas Day entry and the love story it generated.

Back with him in Rotorua it took time to make the final commitment but in October 1978 the couple married. "Bryce's mother said us living together wasn't the right thing to do."

With marriage came a work permit and Ursula became a law firm typist. Surely the legalese must have been a hurdle for one for whom English remained a second language? Not for Ursula - she's a natural linguist.

When it comes to Maori pronunciation she's a gun: "for me it's easy, the vowels are the same as my native tongue."

The Dunns' Rotorua years were interrupted when Bryce was promoted to Wellington; daughter Christina was born there. "She's inherited my travel bug."

Bryce's eventual redundancy returned the family to Rotorua, his pay-out bought a Fenton St motel lease and six years on they acquired a CBD block. When that sold they returned to motels.

Along the way Ursula had a run-in with kidney cancer; when the diagnosis came she couldn't have been working anywhere more apt - an urologist's clinic.

"He said 'the bad news is one kidney's cancerous, the good is you've got two of them'. Now I only have one kidney."

That problem resolved there's another she continues to wrestle with - a hip replacement that repeatedly dislocates, not necessarily in the most convenient of places.

"A helicopter company offered me a trip to White Island to translate for French passengers, I lost traction on the scoria, fell, couldn't move. I'm the only person who's gone there in a commercial chopper and come back in the rescue one, I even made the news."

After so long how does Ursula view herself - Swiss or Kiwi? "I guess somewhere in between."

URSULA DUNN

Born:

Bern, Switzerland, 1946.

Education: Locally.

Family: Husband Bryce, daughter and son-in-law.

Interests: Family, movie buff, gardening "to a certain extent," cooking, reading (crime stories), painter and stained-glass maker, museum volunteer guide, Spectrum Club, former Toastmistress.

On New Zealand: "It's so laid back, that's what I escaped Switzerland for."

Personal Philosophy: "Make a difference."