FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — Wendell Gunn assured the Florence Rotary Club that he had made good on a promise to himself.
“I promised myself I was going to write this speech out,” Gunn said, at the start of his remarks as the speaker at a meeting. “And I did, 10 times.”
He crumbled up each speech, threw it away and started again before ultimately deciding to address the club with no notes.
“I asked Dr. Kitts, ‘What do they want to hear?’” Gunn said, referring to University of North Alabama President Ken Kitts, who was in the audience with his wife, Dena. “He said: ‘Tell your story.’”
Gunn did just that in a talk that prompted a rousing standing ovation at its conclusion.
His talk spanned a story that came full circle, from the day in 1963 when he became the first Black student at then-Florence State to the present, which sees him as a member of the University of North Alabama Board of Trustees.
UNA officials — and many attended Monday’s meeting to hear Gunn share his tales — said they have not been able to find another example nationwide of a student who integrated a university and ultimately became a trustee.
Gunn shared memories of walking into the registrar’s office at Florence State and asking for an application. That ultimately produced a meeting with Florence State President Ethelbert Brinkley Norton, who told Gunn he was not authorized to admit him.
Norton followed that up by saying the only way he could admit Gunn would be through a federal court order. Looking back, Gunn believes Norton said that in an attempt to direct him toward the path of being admitted.
“He gave me the application and told me to talk it over with my parents,” Gunn said.
His parents contacted famed civil rights attorney Fred Gray, who had represented Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King. Gray told him to apply and Gunn got in.
He majored in chemistry and even joined the choir, finding himself performing the tenor solo portion of “I Wonder As I Wander” during a campus visit by Gov. George Wallace.
This was during the era of Wallace’s failed schoolhouse door stand to try to prevent black students from admission at the University of Alabama. After Gunn’s performance, Wallace surprised him when he walked over to Gunn on stage, shook his hand and told him he did a good job.
Gunn also remembers being surprised when his named was called as recipient of the Physics Achievement Award at Honors Day at the end of that school year.
“The audience started to applaud, and I was shocked again,” he said.
Gunn said that moment overwhelmed him to the point that he lost his composure while the applause only grew.
“Within a minute the whole gathering was standing up and applauding and cheering for what must have been four or five whole minutes,” he said. “Every time I tell that story, I still feel what I felt 60-odd years ago. I didn’t know until that moment how much tension I had been carrying with me for eight months, because I had adjusted to it and didn’t remember.”
Gunn’s remarkable story didn’t end after graduating with a chemistry degree in 1965. It only began, as he furthered his education at the University of Chicago. He has worked as a finance professional, a vice president at Chase Manhattan Bank, and an assistant treasurer at PepsiCo.
He also served in the White House as a senior advisor, special assistant for international trade, to President Ronald Reagan.
Gunn said he wrote a letter to the editor while working at Chase Manhattan in 1976 in response to an answer Reagan gave to a question on how he was going to communicate with African-Americans.
Reagan, who was running for president, replied there are not many Black people in the Republican Party.
Gunn’s letter stated Reagan should have responded that we all benefit by a strong economy, and that tax cuts for individuals and businesses across the board would be beneficial.
In 1980, Reagan again ran, this time winning. Gunn was surprised when his transition team approached him about joining his staff. Gunn went to the White House to talk with them. He had planned to turn them down until he was taken to the Oval Office and met Reagan.
“He shook my hand and said welcome aboard,” Gunn said, adding with a laugh, “I thought, ‘What just happened?’”
As he looked back on that first year at Florence State, Gunn said he does not consider himself brave, although he did receive “some unpleasant phone calls” when word that he was applying for admission started to circulate.
“I didn’t remember being afraid,” the Tuscumbia native said. “I didn’t think I was. Nothing in the life that I had in Tuscumbia and the Shoals made me think that anything bad was ever going to happen, regardless of what happened in other places.
“Brave? I never thought I was brave. I may have been unaware. I may have been naïve. I may have been so focused on chemistry and physics.”