FLORENCE – The University of North Alabama and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s office announced last week that Dr. Wendell Wilkie Gunn, the student who first integrated UNA in 1963, has been appointed to the University’s Board of Trustees as the twelfth member of the governing body.
“I am honored by this appointment, and will be seeking ways to work with Dr. Kitts and the other trustees on the principal mission of UNA, which I assume will be the delivery of a world-class education to UNA students, with the maximum affordability, consistent with target quality,” said Dr. Gunn. “I also believe that UNA has a unique and compelling history of accomplishment and change that needs to spread beyond its immediate community. I intend to be instrumental in this endeavor.”
Gunn enrolled at UNA in 1963, one year before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He is the first person to have integrated at an Alabama university and later become a member of its governing body.
“Dr. Gunn is making history at UNA, and this is truly a monumental step for the University,” said Gov. Ivey. “When appointing Dr. Gunn to serve on the Board of Trustees, I knew that he would exemplify the honesty and integrity that I seek in our candidates. I appreciate his willingness to serve the state in this capacity.”
“I know of no other example out there where a student entered under the circumstances that he did, went on to graduate, and then returned to join the institution’s governing body. This is truly full circle for Dr. Gunn,” UNA President Dr. Ken Kitts said. “We welcome him to our Board of Trustees. Dr. Gunn is ideally positioned for this assignment by virtue of his temperament, intelligence, and experience.”
When Gunn sought admission to UNA in 1963, he was represented by noted civil rights attorney Fred Gray. Gray had represented Rosa Parks and Dr. M. L. King in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He successfully represented Vivian Malone and James Hood, who entered the University of Alabama, also in 1963. In fact, lawsuits filed by Gray helped desegregate more than 100 local school systems, as well as all public colleges and universities in Alabama.
Of the Gunn case, Gray said that it was “the easiest civil rights case I ever had.”
“I am extremely happy that Dr. Gunn has been appointed to the UNA board,” Gray said. “And I am overjoyed and proud of what this says about the University of North Alabama itself. Of all my many clients, Dr. Gunn is the first to be appointed to the governing board of the institution that he helped desegregate.”
“I remember that time well,” he said, from his home in Stamford, Conn. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were great examples of bi-partisan cooperation, supported by substantial majorities in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as both of the major political parties.”
As a young man from Tuscumbia, the decision to attend Florence State was one driven by location and cost. To do that, he would need to transfer from Tennessee State in Nashville. It would also mean enrolling at a university in a deeply segregated southern state.
“When the news reports came out that I had applied to Florence State College, I received several unpleasant phone calls,” Dr. Gunn said. “But once I enrolled, the calls stopped. Amazing!”
His early days on campus were quiet and unmarred by the protest and violence that had plagued other college campuses across the southeast.
“During the first few months I was on campus, the other students and I hardly talked to each other,” Dr. Gunn said. “Looking back, I suppose it was because we just didn’t know what to say to each other. In the spring, when I won the physics achievement award, I received a standing ovation. Everyone stood up and cheered. Wow! Finally, I was just another student. That’s all I wanted.”
Through the lens of the 50-plus years that have passed since Dr. Gunn’s matriculation through the University, he feels a deep fondness for UNA. He credits his UNA experience with preparing him to cross the multiple cultural lines that he encountered throughout his career.
“Looking back at my time at Florence State and the fifty-plus years that have followed, it is clear that I was supported by the school,” he said. “I received great recommendations from my professors when I applied to graduate school at the University of Chicago. I received handwritten letters of congratulations from (Florence State) President Norton whenever I received a promotion in my career. Putting these things into perspective, it is clear that Dr. Norton and the administration were prepared for me before I arrived in 1963. They didn’t know who I was or where I would come from, but they were ready to make my entry successful and peaceful. The rest would be up to me.”
Gunn received a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry & Mathematics from what was Florence State in 1965, an MBA in Finance from the University of Chicago in 1971, and an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from UNA in 2017.
After graduation Gunn had a prestigious career with many personal and professional achievements in science, finance, politics and as an independent business owner. He has worked as a finance professional, vice president at Chase Manhattan Bank, and assistant treasurer at PepsiCo. He also served in the White House as a senior advisor and Special Assistant for International Trade to President Ronald Reagan.
He later founded Gunn Solutions, technology consultants to institutional investment managers.
Dr. Gunn returns to Florence and the Shoals regularly and often spends time on campus and visiting with friends and family. He is frequently invited by student organizations to speak and answer questions about his time at UNA, his business career, and his government service. He was the commencement speaker in 2017, and it was at the ceremony that he was awarded an honorary doctorate. Dr. Gunn has also addressed campus during the annual fall convocation.
“When I go to UNA now and walk about the campus, I watch how students interact with each other, across all cultural lines, and it seems as if the old barriers were never there. And my heart sings,” Gunn said. “Even better, I see the same interactions in the community around UNA, whether in the grocery store or when I am in a restaurant for lunch. I have to believe that the University has had, and continues to have, a powerful positive impact on the entire Shoals community.”
Often on these visits, Dr. Gunn spends time with Pres. Kitts, much as he did when E.B. Norton occupied the same space on the first floor of Bibb Graves Hall.
“He told me after the Homecoming parade, ‘You know, Ken, years ago, I started coming back around the University. I’ve always liked it, and I’ve always been grateful for the education I received here. Now, I have really fallen in love with my alma mater.’ ” Kitts said. “It’s this University that he carries in his heart. Even with all the other stops in his high-flying career, from the University of Chicago to the White House, it’s the time he spent at UNA that continues to resonate with him.”