Putting passion to good use

Courtesy Photo / Tom Gunnels
Tom Gunnels

Courtesy photo

Courtesy Photo / Tom Gunnels Tom Gunnels

Kendal Pektas

Although he is not quite sure how he ended up at Grand Valley State University, Tom Gunnels spent the last six years here.

“I applied to a couple schools,” he said. “But I did not know what I wanted to do. I visited the campus and I liked what I saw. I kind of came here on a whim.”

Gunnels graduated from GVSU on Saturday with a degree in creative writing and fiction filmmaking.

Originally from Ortonville, Mich., moving to Grand Rapids and attending GVSU made way for many opportunities,
and he took advantage of them. Last fall, Gunnels was a finalist in the Norman Mailer High School and College Writing Awards contest for a nonfiction piece he wrote about his grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, titled, “How to Tell a True Love Story.”

The piece is currently being used as required reading for some Kirkhof College of Nursing courses.

“My story is a very intimate and personal portrayal of what it is like to deal with a family member who is diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s,” Gunnels said. “It is kind of an illuminating experience for people who do not have experience as to what the families are going through.”

When he is not busy writing, Gunnels is most likely with his band members—whether it be at band practice, or playing a show together. His band, The Crane Wives, started in August 2010 as a blues band, but later transformed its genre to folk music.

“After so many years of being in college, I started to miss music in my life,” he said. “I reached out to two friends of mine, Kate Pillsbury and Dan Rickabus, and asked if they wanted to jam for fun. Kate brought in Emilee Petersmark, and I started playing banjo for fun. Then we brought in a bass player and it just took off—unexpectedly.”

Their first album, “Safe Ship, Harbored,” was released in May. It has sold more than 1,500 copies, and is available on iTunes, Amazon and Pandora.

Gunnels knows how to play at least four instruments, but said he “messes around with a lot of instruments” as he teaches himself how to play them.

Yet with all of the things going on in his life, he still manages to balance them all.

“I am one of the most disorganized people you might ever meet,” Gunnels said. “But when you play three shows a week, and you have band practice twice a week, it just narrows down your time, so you can’t waste any of it. It forces me to do work when I can—it’s almost like purposeful procrastination.”

The Crane Wives plan to record their second album in March. Gunnels plans to follow wherever the band will take him, but his fallback plan is going to graduate school for writing.

“Even if I do not go to grad school, I’m going to continue writing on the side; that’s always been my first passion,” he said.

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