Rikk Dunlap helps keep Homewood-Flossmoor High School in suburban Chicago running smoothly. As a maintenance worker for the school, he wanders up and down the halls with his toolbelt, while the students have no idea one of his biggest dreams is about to come true.
Dunlap, 57, is a writer in his spare-time – and one of his soon-to-be-published novels is premiering as a movie, Christmas Under the Stars, on Hallmark.
The movie is part of the Hallmark Channel’s 10th-anniversary Countdown to Christmas series and Dunlap’s work fits right in with the holiday spirit and feeling of Christmas. However, it’s his personal story that truly tugs at the heartstrings.
Dunlap spoke with People and said that while growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, it was writing that always held his attention.
“I didn’t exactly fit in,” Dunlap told People. “I was shy and not really into sports and I wasn’t really involved in any extracurricular activities. I was kind of a drifter through high school. I loved English as a class but I wasn’t that good at it. [Laughs] When I was 15 or 16 years old, I sent in a letter to MAD magazine and that was the first time I ever saw my name in print.”
After graduating high school, Dunlap puts his dreams of writing on the side-burner for something more stable at an engineering firm.
Five years after landing his solid job, Dunlap even married his high school sweetheart and life was picturesque – except for one very big problem – alcoholism.
“I knew I had a drinking problem,” he says. “My life was falling apart. I started getting into drugs on top of the drinking. I mean, I was sinking very quickly.”
One day, Dunlap spent the entire day drinking at a local bar and returned home to find a note from his wife of four years – she had left him. That’s when he says he had an epiphany.
“I had a decision to make,” he says. “I could grab that 357 on the couch and take care of things. Or I could take a breath, and give it one more day.”
Serendipitously, the next day was Easter Sunday.
“I remember that a group of us were sitting in a house that had no heat or electricity,” says Dunlap. “We were waiting for the drug dealer to arrive. As soon as he walked in the door, I set my beer down, got on my motorcycle and left. That was my last drink. I never finished it.”
It was at this moment that he made a decision to be sober from that day forward.
“Getting sober meant having to deal with all of the anger and shame and confusion that I had been trying to hide for so long,” says Dunlap, who also does professional speaking. “That’s when I turned to writing. Writing saved me.”
A happy memory came flooding back to Dunlap that would soon become his novel The Christmas Tree Lot and what would also become the Hallmark movie Christmas Under The Stars.
“I would always take the same route from my home to the train station and from the train station to home, and I would always see this Christmas tree lot come to life every November,” he recalls of the lot, located in Richton Park, Illinois. “I always loved the holidays, and when I would see that trailer get set up and the trees get put out and the tent built – I mean, it was my introduction to the holiday season.”
Sadly, in 2017, Dunlap lost his job at the engineering firm after a long 37 years and took the job at the high school. However, it was exactly one year later from that day that he signed his deal with Hallmark turning his holiday novel into a movie.
“My dream is to write for a living,” says Dunlap. “I want to write books that make people happy and I want people to be changed in some way by my writing.”
Now, Dunlap walks the halls with his head held high and is excited for what’s to come.
“And I hope the students at Homewood Flossmoor realize that the guy they see walking in the hallway with the light bulbs in his hand and the tattoos on his arms had a dream and he made it come true,” he says. “And now they can too.”
Watch the trailer for the movie below and check your local Hallmark Channel listings for premier times.
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H/T: Little Things