FT. MYERS, Fla. — Linking long-lost loved ones, let alone loved ones who have never even seen each other before, isn’t always an easy task.
Ask Troy Dunn. After all, the guy did it — on television — to support a family for five years. But this former bishop from Florida isn't yet done with the family-based television business.
Since searching through old files in a shoebox that indicated traces of his mother's own parents, Dunn, who until earlier this year presided over the Lehigh Acres ward of the Ft. Myers, Fla. stake, has been an advocate of linking family. That passion of uniting others with ties long since severed parlayed into a show that became WE TV’s historically most-watched after a better-known network, A&E, had passed on it at the last minute — a decision that some of the network’s executives said was the “biggest mistake of their career” after they saw the show’s premiere episode be the most-viewed in the history of WE TV.
Despite its popularity, “The Locator” was canceled by WE TV following the fifth season's finale after the network decided to depart from a family theme and emphasize more “tabloid content,” Dunn said.
"I try to let our work speak for who we are and what we do," Dunn said of a show that increasingly involved his own family — which includes his wife, Jennifer, and their seven children — in playing the role of locators themselves, particularly during its final season, which ran from last November to April of this year.
“I’m grateful to be one of the LDS people to break into the mainstream media. That’s a hard challenge. There’s not a large group of us there, but there are some.”
Dunn, also a former BYU football player, has certainly benefited from connections. His friendship with Barbara Walters, who is currently a contributor to ABC News, placed him with attorneys to snag significantly large television contracts — all in the midst of ensuring he broadcasted a product that aligned with gospel standards.
“In this industry, you’re fighting battles on a daily basis in holding firm to the iron rod,” Dunn said. “Putting a product acceptable to the industry creates a unique set of circumstances. I’ve never had a temptation where our family has thought we should sell out a little. So WE TV knew that wasn’t an option, and so they’d have to adjust. Two, there is a huge audience that looks for family-friendly content. We were offering that.”
It was an offer that all began with an act of family altruism. Although she had made progress in the quest, Dunn’s mother Katie had been a grown woman not knowing her biological parents. When Dunn decided to try to rectify that problem, little did he know he was linking the first of hundreds of families over the next half-decade.
“Now in retrospect, maybe because I was so close, I was scared,” Katie said about her son completing the task of her meeting her biological mother for the first time. Dunn had been able to finish putting the pieces together by using Katie’s research materials, which had lain in a shoebox in her bedroom.
While the anticipated meeting didn’t quite live up to expectations — Katie was never able to meet her father since her mother wasn’t willing to provide the necessary contact information — the efforts of both Dunns to connect family was enough to set each of them on a course that they, as well as Troy’s family, are grateful for.
“Who would’ve thought this journey would lead to this work, this labor of love,” said Katie, who has her own online following from fans of the show. “I’m 22 years into this career now. Who would’ve guessed that when I found my mother, it would be a pivotal piece and beginning of this journey. I just thought meeting my mother would do it for me. I didn’t know Heavenly Father had this whole other plan.”
The family affair has been a learning experience for not just mother and son.
“Our children haven’t lived a sheltered life, but they have had an intact family with a father and mother, so the show has been a great opportunity for them to see the different consequences of lifestyles and choices that people make early on,” said Jennifer, who was sealed to Dunn in the Atlanta temple in 1988. “It’s certainly opened their eyes to ways that people who live their life one way can effect you in adulthood.”
Despite the nobility of their father’s work, Jennifer said it hasn’t been easy for the children to define what Dunn had been doing day in and day out.
“That’s always been a hard one for the kids to answer,” said. “How do you say that in one word, about being on a TV show that reunites people? As they’ve seen how these reunions impact people’s lives, it helps the kids and those who ask them about it visualize what he did. They can say, ‘Wow, my dad does impact lives in what he does for a living.’”
While Dunn said he only regrets that the stories of such couplings couldn’t have reached even more people through a larger network, he is looking forward to a project which will involve his family even more than the last season of “The Locator” did. He is currently developing a talk show that is planned to be an entire family affair.
The catch? Like Dunn was able to pull off before, making it onto a network that embraces family values with gospel standards.
But Dunn likes his chances.
“It’s amazing. You’d think that after a hit show, it would get easier to sell family values, but it’s never easier to sell Hollywood on that," said Dunn, who has also been an occasional contributor to FOX News and wrote a best-selling book in 2007 called “Young Bucks,” which discusses ways in which parents can raise a millionaire. “That’s my agenda, always has been.”
It’s a course that, while chartered through a world of well-known personalities, has availed Dunn some unique opportunities along the way. He said he is especially grateful for such opportunities after he had determined earlier in life not to serve a full-time mission — a decision he said resulted in nothing remarkably good happening during that two-year time of his life and a decision he is grateful his sons haven't followed so far. His oldest, Trey, recently returned from the Russia Moscow mission while his second child, Trevor, has received a call to Honduras.
“I’ve sat with Dr. Phil and shared my beliefs. I gave a Book of Mormon to Jerry Springer and explained eternal marriage to Jerry Seinfeld,” Dunn said. “I hope that Latter-day Saints and all of us can continue to be supportive of the type of content we all believe in. Doing so helps accomplish the Lord’s mission, and media is one way to do that."
“Strengthening families is what I continue to be committed to do," he continued. "Jennifer and I hope to do that in many ways in the future, as long as there is a running for good TV.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company