FLORENCE — It’s been 56 years since Wendell Wilkie Gunn integrated the University of North Alabama, but the university is still working to honor the part he played in its story of inclusion — most recently with a 30-foot wall design honoring his life and career.
The jumbo decal, which stretches the length of an entire wall across from Caffè Dallucci on the ground floor of Collier Library, was a collaborative project between art and public history students.
The design features a timeline and photos of Gunn from his birth in Tuscumbia in 1942 to UNA’s Commons building taking his name in March 2018.
A large crowd of students, faculty and visitors gathered around the wall Friday for a ceremony celebrating the design.
“This pictorial on the wall tells a wonderful story of a very special man whose journey and whose trajectory has, in many ways, become inseparable from his alma mater,” said UNA President Ken Kitts. “He is deserving of this honor. His story is a very important part of the narrative of this university.”
According to public history professor Brian Dempsey, he and art professor Chiong-Yiao Chen teamed up to tackle a challenge from administration to interpret Gunn’s story.
It was a task he called “incredible and daunting at the same time.”
"We found out very quickly about Dr. Gunn that, yes, he’s an inspiration, but he’s also quite the humble individual who’s led an extraordinary life and career," Dempsey added. "We only attempted to show a small piece of that."
With all hands on deck, the project took about a semester and a half to complete.
Michael Meigs was one of the art students involved in the design. Now an alumnus, he returned to campus Friday for the ceremony.
He said the design was all about clarity and flow, though the students wanted Gunn’s 1963 enrollment to be a centerpiece.
“I loved seeing the old photos from his childhood and the stories that he tells within the mural about his experience at UNA,” Meigs added. “I’m just really glad to see it finally up for the students and the public to see.”
Dempsey also noted a standout quote they added, which Gunn once said to a student: “You don't know whose hero you are.”
Chen said the project was an equal partnership that gave her students a chance to reach beyond the confines of the studio.
“They are connecting with the community, and the whole experience allowed us to continue to learn,” she said.
Public history student Josh Grigsby said it was also a great opportunity to collaborate with students who had different skillsets — something he said he will do regularly in his career.
Another public history student, Julia McGee, said the project was one she’ll never forget.
“The way (Gunn) handled the difficult questions about integration and civil rights really was moving, and the fact that he’s so humble about the entirety of this,” she said.
Gunn was quick to shift the focus to his alma mater, known then as Florence State College.
“This isn’t a story about me, really,” he said. “The story is about UNA and this community. It has a very unique story about inclusion and progress and providing a world-class education for the students that come through here.”
Gunn also acknowledged the progress UNA has made since he became a student, a great deal of which he said happened within his first few months on campus.
“When I come back here 50-odd years later, and I walk about this campus and I see the people interact with each other, my heart sings,” he added. “It just sings.”
Many of the students said they were proud to work on the wall design.
“It was a lot of work for all of us, but I think it was worth it because it means a lot to be able to leave something behind at a university that we care a lot about,” said public history student Tori Shaw.
“It makes me feel really good that I had a part in something that was really important to the university,” Grigsby added. “Dr. Gunn is probably the most humble man that I’ve ever met. Just getting to work with him and getting to see what’s come from that is just incredible.”
The decal will remain on the wall until 2021 when a new design will go up honoring the 150th anniversary of women’s admission to UNA.
Similar projects will grace the wall over the next several years, according to Alexander.