Remembering Pattie Dunn: How she lived with cancer

December 7, 2011, 1:31 AM UTC

Even as Pattie Dunn died at age 58 after a long battle with cancer, she lived a full life. Her life started as an urban fairy tale: When I met her for the first time in 1999, Dunn told me about growing up as the daughter of a Las Vegas impresario and a showgirl, starting her career as a secretary at Wells Fargo , and rising through the banking world to CEO of Barclays Global Investors . That job, overseeing the world’s largest institutional money manager, made her No. 11 on Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women list that year.

Dunn’s life turned in 2001, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer–then, melanoma in 2002, ovarian cancer in 2004, and a recurrence, in the liver, in 2006. With great will and vigor, she powered through her illness and then through all sorts of messes at Hewlett-Packard , where she was on the board. As non-executive chairman, she played a key role in the ouster of CEO Carly Fiorina in 2005. A year later, Dunn herself got embroiled in a board probe gone awry. The state of California indicted her and then dropped charges related to spying on fellow directors and journalists. But Dunn lost her HP board position.

In 2007, I went to Dunn’s home in Orinda, CA, east of San Francisco, to do an exclusive interview with her about weathering all these storms. She was the picture of health and remarkably gracious–perhaps realizing that after all she had been through, she could handle anything.

Dunn with her husband, Bill Jahnke

Dunn and I didn’t talk again after that Q&A ran. (She emailed me to complain that she disliked the headline, “The survival of Pattie Dunn.”) But ever since, I’ve thought of Dunn almost everyday. That’s because her name appears in my address book right before my own name; when I send an email to myself, “Pattie Dunn” pops up before “Pattie Sellers.” This morning, I found an email she sent me eight years ago, after we invited her to appear on a panel with two other cancer survivors, then-CEO of Autodesk Carol Bartz and current Morgan Stanley CFO Ruth Porat. Dunn couldn’t make it to the Summit; she was doing R&R in Australia, where she and her ex-banker husband, Bill Jahnke, owned a winery. In regretting Fortune‘s invitation, Dunn sent this email, which I read from the stage:

“My situation is stable and each day is a gift. My attitude is that we are ALL borrowing every day from death, but some of us have been rudely reminded that this is the case–which is not all bad. And one can still be determined to fight for every day.”

Dunn is survived by two daughters and 10 grandchildren. She also wrote this to me in 2003, when she had no idea how long she would live with her cancer:

“As your MPW surveys mature with the years, there will be women who become ill, or die for whatever reason. To reduce the stigma of illness, I’d recommend noting these developments if the individual in question (in instance of illness) agrees. I’ve actually had people who thought I died because I was no longer listed! That’s actually a great testament to the impact of your work! 
Best regards, 

I trust that Dunn wouldn’t mind that I’m sharing this with you today. For a while at least, I’m not deleting her name from my address book.

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