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James L. Dunbar Sr., who founded one of the nation’s largest armored car companies, dies

James L. Dunbar Sr. started Federal Armored Express in Baltimore in 1956. The family sold the business, by then renamed Dunbar Armored, in 2018 to The Brink’s Co.
James L. Dunbar Sr. started Federal Armored Express in Baltimore in 1956. The family sold the business, by then renamed Dunbar Armored, in 2018 to The Brink’s Co.

Kevin Dunbar called it a rare treat when he took a moment from the soccer or lacrosse game he was involved in for Dulaney High School and spotted his father in the stands. As founder of the Federal Armored Express, James L. Dunbar Sr. was often toiling away trying to grow the armored car company he started in Baltimore in 1956.

“Being a small-business guy, he had to put a lot of hours in,” Kevin Dunbar recalled. “So it wasn’t as often as a kid would like because he needed to take care of the business. … When he was there for me at a sporting event, it meant a lot to me as a kid.”

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Mr. Dunbar died June 9 — on what would have been his 69th wedding anniversary to the late Gwenyth Dunbar — at the Blakehurst Senior Living Community in Towson due to heart failure. He was 90.

Mr. Dunbar was one of three sons and one daughter born to George W. Dunbar and Leona (Scanlon) Dunbar in West Hartford, Connecticut. George Dunbar co-founded Mercer & Dunbar, the first armored car company in the New England area, while Leona Dunbar was a teacher.

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Afflicted with dyslexia, Mr. Dunbar struggled in school. His mother arranged for him to transfer to the Proctor Academy in Andover, New Hampshire, where he overcame the learning disability and graduated in 1949.

Later in his life, Mr. Dunbar became a regular donor to the Proctor Academy, especially toward programs helping children suffering from dyslexia.

Keith Barrett, director of development at the Proctor Academy, characterized Mr. Dunbar’s contributions to the school’s learning skills department as “transformational gifts.”

“Over the years, his impact to our school has been unsurpassed,” Barrett said, adding that there is a classroom named after Mr. and Mrs. Dunbar and there has been some discussion about naming an on-campus center after the late couple. “He was so focused on what kids had to overcome and what that means to them and their families. He was ultra-focused on saying that he wanted to help the families and their child to make sure they can overcome these unsurmountable things up against them.”

Kevin Dunbar said his father remembered the obstacles he and other kids battling dyslexia faced.

“He was able to reach back to dyslexic children at the Proctor Academy, and he supported them to the end of his life,” his son said from his home in Hunt Valley.

James L. Dunbar Sr., pictured in August 1981, "would make pickups in the morning and then go make sales calls in the afternoon because he had to grow a business,” his son, Kevin, said.
James L. Dunbar Sr., pictured in August 1981, "would make pickups in the morning and then go make sales calls in the afternoon because he had to grow a business,” his son, Kevin, said. (CARTER/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Mr. Dunbar enrolled at Babson College and Nichols College and graduated with an associate degree from the latter before joining his father’s armored car company as a driver guard. “I think he wanted to get started,” Kevin Dunbar said.

After marrying the former Gwenyth Hall in 1951 in West Hartford, Mr. Dunbar moved his wife, daughter Kathryn and son James L. Dunbar Jr. to Baltimore in 1956 when he started Federal Armored Express. Kevin Dunbar said his father’s pitch to potential clients included the phrase, “one truck, two guns and a tank of gas.”

“He would make pickups in the morning and then go make sales calls in the afternoon because he had to grow a business,” his son said. “He wore multiple hats — HR person, operator, sales guy, administrator. And then as it grew, we were able to hire professionals that could do that for us.”

At the family’s home in Timonium, Mr. Dunbar had nicknames for his three children. He called Kathryn “Suz,” James “J-Bird,” and Kevin “O’Malley.” Kathryn (Dunbar) Ramsdell of Baltimore said she did not mind the different name.

“I think I saw it as a pet name, and that made me feel special,” she said.

Mrs. Ramsdell said her father had been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous in his 47th year and devoted himself to his Christian faith and the Church of the Resurrection in Lutherville.

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James L. Dunbar Sr. is pictured in April 1998 in front of his company's headquarters in Hunt Valley. Dunbar Armored had just acquired Vets Armored Cars Inc. of New York.
James L. Dunbar Sr. is pictured in April 1998 in front of his company's headquarters in Hunt Valley. Dunbar Armored had just acquired Vets Armored Cars Inc. of New York. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“Night and day,” Mrs. Ramsdell said of the transformation her father made. “He was a changed person in the way he treated people. … His personality was more relaxed if things didn’t go his way.”

When the family sold the business in 2018 to The Brink’s Co., the company had expanded to 90 cities. That was quite a departure from when Kevin Dunbar joined his father’s company in 1980, when it was established in only five cities.

“It was difficult when you’re a small business and you’re talking about moving someone else’s money and you only have five or 10 trucks,” his son said. “When we sold the business, we had 1,500 trucks. I’m sure the bigger companies, the big banks of those days probably said, ‘You’re too small for us.’ But some of the smaller businesses would relate to him and say, ‘Yeah, you can take care for me.’ The Baltimore Orioles, the Baltimore Colts and Baltimore Ravens were very good customers. And then when we moved into more national prominence, we got to talk to the Walgreens of the world and the Bank of Americas of the world. So it was a different entity in the early years.”

At the company’s financial peak, it employed 6,000 people, and Mr. Dunbar wrote cards by hand to commemorate each employee’s birthday and work anniversary.

“He just wanted to be close,” Kevin Dunbar said. “When you have facilities across the nation and you can’t touch those facilities every day, that was his way of touching them. He traveled a lot, I traveled a lot, but there was nothing like a handwritten note. He believed in reaching out to his people as much as he could, and a written testament is a powerful medium.”

James L. Dunbar Sr. is pictured at Dunbar Armored's offices in Hunt Valley. At left is the firm's first armored car. At right is a model of its 1,000th vehicle.
James L. Dunbar Sr. is pictured at Dunbar Armored's offices in Hunt Valley. At left is the firm's first armored car. At right is a model of its 1,000th vehicle. (Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)

Mr. Dunbar and his wife — who died in March 2018 — established three different scholarships and an endowment fund at Towson University. Two of the scholarships pay tribute to their eldest son, James L. Dunbar Jr., who died in 1994 at the age of 39 from pancreatic cancer.

The James L. Dunbar Jr. Memorial Scholarship has been awarded 114 times to junior and senior marketing majors within the university’s College of Business and Economics for nontraditional students age 22 and older in honor of the younger Dunbar, who had returned to Towson in his 20s to get his bachelor’s in business. And the James L. Dunbar Jr. Memorial Music Scholarship has been awarded 25 times to undergraduates 25 years or older majoring in music education or music performance, composition and/or literature in the College of Fine Arts & Communications’ Department of Music.

“It’s become very important to the family, and they’ve been very financially generous over the years to make sure that legacy lives on,” said Erin Steffes, who chairs the marketing department at Towson’s College of Business and Economics. “We’re just lucky we got to be a part of his legacy.”

In addition to his two children, Mr. Dunbar is survived by six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Mr. Dunbar was buried Monday next to his wife at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium.

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