Patricia Dunn dies at 58; Hewlett-Packard chairwoman

Patricia Dunn, the former Hewlett-Packard Co. chairwoman whose role in an explosive corporate spying scandal overshadowed her storybook rise from temporary secretary to one of corporate America’s most powerful women, has died. She was 58.

Dunn, who had battled ovarian cancer for nearly eight years, died Sunday morning at her home in Orinda, Calif. Her death was confirmed by Hewlett-Packard spokesman Michael Thacker.

Dunn dropped out of the public spotlight since resigning as outside chairwoman of Hewlett-Packard in September 2006 amid a media firestorm that she had approved a surveillance and sting operation to plug board-level leaks about one of the world’s largest technology companies.

The revelation that HP spied on its board members, employees and journalists triggered state and federal criminal investigations and a congressional inquiry. Prosecutors later dropped charges against Dunn, who was ill at the time and worried that she would not live long enough to clear her name. Dunn said she had been assured that the methods used to obtain phone records were legal.

“As those who know me the best know well, I always sought to avoid unnecessary attention,” Dunn said while accepting her induction into the Bay Area Council’s Hall of Fame in 2006. “One of my favorite phrases is: I can understand rich, but I cannot understand famous.”

It was a stunning reversal of fortune for Dunn, who had defied stereotypes and the odds by climbing to the top of the rough-elbowed, male-dominated world of corporate finance.

Dunn was born March 27, 1953, in Burbank and grew up in Las Vegas, where her father handled bookings for casino hotels and her mother worked as a showgirl. After her father’s death from a heart attack when she was 12, the family moved to Marin County. She commuted on three buses to get a journalism degree from UC Berkeley in 1975.

She landed a job as a temporary secretary at Wells Fargo Investment Advisors, where she worked her way up to chief executive and met her future husband, William Jahnke, a banker, who survives her. She helped raise four stepchildren while keeping pace with her male counterparts in the office and on the golf course. Barclays bought the firm in 1996 and Dunn became chief executive in 1998.

That was the same year she was recruited to join the HP board. During her nine-year tenure, she played a key role in hiring in 1999 — and then firing in 2005 — CEO Carly Fiorina. Dunn also helped recruit Mark Hurd, who led a dramatic corporate rebound. Hurd was ousted last year after a damaging probe into a sexual harassment claim.

Dunn, who was a regular on Fortune magazine’s list of the most powerful women in business, assumed Fiorina’s role as non-executive chairwoman. She stepped down in 2002 as Barclays chief executive to fight breast cancer and melanoma. Two years later she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She underwent surgery three weeks before the HP scandal broke.

“Pattie Dunn worked tirelessly for the good of HP,” Thacker, the spokesman for the Palo Alto company, said in an emailed statement. “We are saddened by the news of her passing, and our thoughts go out to her family on their loss.”