Robert J. Dunfey Sr., who founded and developed the Maine Mall shopping center in South Portland, once owned the former Eastland Hotel in Portland, and was a prominent backer of Democratic politicians, died last week. He was 88.

A former resident of Cape Elizabeth, Dunfey died Aug. 23 in Dover, New Hampshire, following a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. More recently he had resided in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

“I still remember the time my father took me for a ride on Payne Road past a pig farm in South Portland. He said to me, ‘There is going to be a mall there, and I said, Dad, what’s a mall?’ ” his son Robert J. Dunfey Jr. of Cape Elizabeth recalled Monday. The Maine Mall, which opened in 1971 with anchor stores Sears and Jordan Marsh, has become the largest shopping mall in Maine. It now features 119 stores.

Dunfey also helped create some of the mall’s adjacent commercial developments, including the Doubletree Hotel – formerly a Sheraton – and the retail complex at Clarks Pond in South Portland.

“He was a true visionary,” his son said. “I learned a lot from him.”

Dunfey also acquired the former Eastland Hotel in downtown Portland in 1960 and helped establish it as one of the best lodging and dining facilities in the city.

Dunfey proved to be an astute businessman throughout his career, co-founding the chain of Dunfey Hotels now known as Omni Hotels.

The younger Dunfey said his father played a significant role in creating peace in Northern Ireland and traveled to Oslo, Norway, with John Hume and David Trimble – prominent Northern Ireland leaders – when they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland.

In 1980, acting on behalf of then-Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan, Dunfey asked U.S. District Judge George Mitchell to fill the Senate seat of Edmund Muskie, who had been appointed secretary of state by President Jimmy Carter.

Dunfey went on to become good friends with Mitchell, whom he accompanied on a fact-finding mission to Northern Ireland.

Dunfey was also a very political person. He served as the Maine state coordinator for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Dunfey Jr. said Kennedy would call his father every Sunday for campaign updates.

Not all of his accomplishments were popular.

Dunfey led a controversial campaign in 1966 to allow Maine restaurants, lounges and hotels to sell alcoholic beverages on Sunday – something that had never been allowed.

“An opponent put sand in his gas tank,” his son recalled. “Knowing my father, he probably took it in stride.”

Though he was a savvy businessman, Dunfey also had a big heart, his son said.

He said he learned after his father’s death through posts on Facebook that Dunfey paid college tuition for the child of one of his workers at the Eastland, and paid the tuition for the child of a housekeeper to attend Cheverus High School.

He was co-founder of Camp Susan Curtis, which was established in memory of former Maine Gov. Kenneth Curtis’ daughter, who died while Curtis was in office. The camp serves economically disadvantaged youths from Maine, providing them with a tuition-free outdoor camping experience.

“My father was a humble person. He didn’t seek any publicity for his accomplishments or his good deeds,” the younger Dunfey said.

Dunfey is survived by his wife, five children, and four siblings. A celebration of his life will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 10 in St. John Evangelist Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.