Wendell Wilkie Gunn was born on September 25, 1942, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. His mother cooked in local restaurants and his father worked as a laborer and union official at a local metal company. Wendell was the youngest of their four children. As a boy, he attended the High Street Church of Christ, and remembers walking to the local Strand Theater on Saturdays to watch the latest movie. Growing up in the Shoals, Dr. Gunn also enjoyed swimming, but because the local pool was segregated, he and his friends swam in a nearby creek.
After attending kindergarten through 9th grade at Trenholm High School, the African American school in Tuscumbia, Dr. Gunn enrolled in the Nashville Christian Institute (NCI), completing his high school education in 1960. He transferred to NCI in part because “[his] mother wanted [him] to be a preacher and she didn’t want [him] to sing the blues in night clubs anymore.” Civil Rights Attorney, Fred Gray, was among the many alumni who also attended Nashville Christian Institute.
Wendell was the first African American student to enroll and attend then Florence State College, more than 130 years after the institution's founding.
Dr. Gunn met Linda Jones while pursuing a Master of Business Administration in Finance at the University of Chicago. After dating for two weeks, Wendell and Linda knew they had found something special and they married the following April in 1967. Their happy marriage led to three children: Gregory, Kenneth, and Amanda.
After completing his Masters Degree in 1971, Dr. Gunn accepted a job offer at Chase Manhattan Bank. He thrived at his job and gained valuable lessons in leadership that would help him throughout the rest of his life. One of his favorite aspects of working at Chase was helping small businesses get off the ground.
In 1976, Dr. Gunn wrote a response to Ronald Reagan’s position on communicating with African American voters. During the 1980 campaign, candidate Reagan referred specifically to Gunn’s ideas. After the election, Gunn was repeatedly asked to join the Reagan Administration but he always declined. One day while touring the White House, Wendell met President Reagan face-to-face. He recalled “the [President reached] over to shake my hand and he [said], ‘Welcome aboard!’” Surprised and a bit confused, Dr. Gunn responded with “Thank you, sir,” and his two year journey as a “Special Assistant to the President for International Trade” began.
After the election of George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Jack Kemp’s appointment as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Gunn was appointed as Kemp’s Chief of Staff, a role he held until 1990. Subsequently, Gunn was a Vice President at MetLife Pension & Investments until 1996. After leaving MetLife, Gunn founded and served as Managing Director of Gunn Solutions of Stamford, Connecticut, an Information technology consulting company to institutional investment managers.
On March 14, 2018, the University of North Alabama Commons Building was renamed in honor of Wendell Wilkie Gunn, as “[he] epitomizes the traits of perseverance and integrity that cross social, racial, and cultural backgrounds… that the University desires for all students as a means to academic and future success.” In response, Dr. Gunn wrote a letter to the UNA Trustees expressing his gratitude as well as his belief that “this decision amounts to the official designation of the 1963 opening of the University’s doors as a landmark event, a positive turning point and a new beginning in the University’s history. Moreover, it will be seen as a renewal of UNA’s commitment to serve all segments of the University’s community.”
“In Latin, alma mater means ‘nourishing mother.’ So I remember my ‘nourishment’ from Tennessee State, from Trenholm High School in Tuscumbia… and High Street Church of Christ…But over the years… a lot of things have happened that have turned UNA into my alma mater. And it didn’t just happen on one day. It happened continuously from the time I was here, and I didn’t understand the pieces until I got to… this point and [looked] back over the whole fifty years and I said, ‘Oh my goodness. UNA… really did it correctly. UNA really, truly did it correctly.’”
The University of North Alabama awarded an Honorary Doctorate to Wendell Wilkie Gunn on May 13, 2017. One of his favorite things to do while visiting UNA is to sit in the Commons and watch students of all backgrounds interact with each other in a welcoming environment. This serves as a testament to Dr. Gunn’s significant legacy. It is also a reminder that his decision to desegregate Florence State College in 1963 paved the way for the University of North Alabama to become a more inclusive and diverse campus community.
Much of the text on this page is taken directly from a mural honoring the life, career, and achievements of Gunn at UNA's Collier Library.
The 30 foot mural is located on the ground floor near Caffe Dellucci. UNA's Public History Center faculty and students and School of the Arts faculty collaborated on this project.