College of
Human
Medicine

2010

Dr. Gunnings a champion for minorities

August 25, 2010

By Matthew Miller
The Lansing State Journal

College's first African American faculty member dies at 75

Thomas Gunnings arrived at Michigan State University in 1969 as the only black counselor on campus.

It didn't take long before black students started asking for him specifically. Their most pressing concern, he told the Lansing State Journal in 1970, was "How can I be me, keep my identity and still get a degree from this university?"

Gunnings believed black students needed mentors, "a significant person they can relate and talk to in the community or on campus." For many, he would be not only a mentor but an advocate, a champion.

"He was just a good man about the right things and used his position and influence to try to impact the lives of individuals who did not always have a voice," said his daughter, Sonya Gunnings-Moton, an assistant dean in MSU's College of Education. "That's what people loved about him. That's what I loved about him."

Gunnings was the first black faculty member in MSU's College of Human Medicine and an assistant dean in the college during the 1970s. He was an influential psychologist who published extensively on educational and therapeutic programs for minority youth and their families. He died Aug. 20 following a cardiac arrest. He was 75.

"He was a giant, not only physically, but also a giant in his field and in many other endeavors," said Eugene Pernell, who worked with Gunnings for more than three decades at Meridian Professional Psychological Consultants, a practice Gunnings founded in 1977.

At a time when relatively few women or minorities went to medical school, Gunnings "went out and found them and supported them, and they became great people," said Pernell, who is a retired MSU professor himself.

Marsha Rappley, dean of MSU's medical school, said Gunnings was a principal investigator on the first grant MSU received from the federal government supporting diversity in medical education and pushed the idea that it was not simply an issue of justice, but one of public health, of access to medical care by underserved communities.

"That was a radical concept then," she said. "Of course, Dr. Gunnings was a radical kind of guy. He did not accept the status quo, and he worked very hard for those changes through his whole entire career."

Joel Ferguson, chair of the MSU Board of Trustees, said Gunnings had a habit of asking for things for other people, for the students or faculty members that he believed showed promise.

He did not do the same for himself.

"That was the beauty of Tom," Ferguson said. "Every time I'd get a phone call from him, it was always what can we do for someone else."

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