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Gunelson preserves UW-River Falls history

November 15, 2007

Nestled into an office filled with computers, photography equipment and an array of photos, you can find a man who has been a part of UW-River Falls for 30 years.

But don’t expect to find Jens Gunelson in his office. As the University photographer, Gunelson has spent much of his time on the move, with a camera in hand, shooting almost anything and everything on campus.

“Jens Gunelson is an amazing photographer,” Mark Kinders, director of public affairs, said. “Through his years he has created an extraordinary archive of life at the University that will be legacy for decades to come.”

Gunelson grew up in Belview, Minn., where he attended high school. He continued his education at Minnesota State University-Mankato in 1964.  He was an English major and art minor, finishing his undergraduate degree in 1968.

Vietnam was just around the corner.

“My draft notice was in the mail, so I joined the army,” Gunelson said.

A friend of his had dropped out of school a year prior and joined army intelligence.  Gunelson’s friend said that there had not been a death in army intelligence since 1964.

“So, that was good enough for me,” Gunelson said. “So, I applied for army intelligence and I got in.”

For six months, he went to army intelligence school at Fort Holabird, Md., and was then sent to a Vietnamese language school in California for a year.

“I was bad,” Gunelson said. “I was one of the worst students there.”

But it was in California where his roots as a photographer broke ground.

“It was there that several of my classmates and myself taught ourselves photography in their craft shop,” Gunelson said.

After language school, Gunelson was shipped out to Vietnam, where he remained for about nine months. There was not much to do, and passion for the war was just not there, he said. While he was there he spent a lot of time playing volleyball and driving around in a jeep, picking up hitchhikers.

At Ft. Holabird he had about 35 fellow students in his class. Five of them were marines who had already been to Vietnam, while the other 30 were college graduates.

“I don’t remember any of them showing any want to be in the service,” Gunelson said.

He also said that in this day and age, wars are not necessary, and that they are merely a result of a breakdown in diplomacy.

“I feel very sorry for the people in the military right now,” Gunelson said. “They are taking the brunt of the war.”

Despite his lack of desire to be in Vietnam, the young man was able to further his skills as a photographer.

There was a dark room on the base, and nobody was doing photography, so he began using the room.

In 1970, American involvement in the Vietnam War was falling apart rapidly, and Gunelson was given the choice of remaining in Vietnam for two months or coming back to the states for five.

“So, I figured why press my luck,” Gunelson said.

He came back to the states, and for five months he remained in Peoria, Ill., interviewing people a few days out of the week.

After getting the G.I. Bill, Gunelson resumed his education at Mankato and earned a master’s degree in structural media and technology. He was one of few graduate students at the time who worked at the Mankato school newspaper, the Reporter.

Soon after getting his master’s degree, Gunelson received a phone call from the wife of Jim Thies, who had been the sports editor for the Reporter. Thies, currently the UWRF assistant public affairs director and sports information director, had begun working at UWRF after graduating.

“I was confident that he could do the job at UWRF since I was familiar with his work at Mankato State,” Thies said in an e-mail interview. “And I knew he would be a great fit into this campus community.”

“So, I interviewed for it, and [it was] my only interview and my only job,” Gunelson said.

Gunelson currently shoots photos for news releases, The Falcon Daily newspaper, a number of sporting events and several other things.

“No one on this campus has been to more commencements, awards ceremonies or other annually recurring activities than has Jens,” Kinders said. “Even so, he brings a fresh eye to every event.”
Gunelson said he appreciates the storytelling ability that a photograph possesses.

He also takes a lot of staff mug shots in front of a backdrop that stands out soon as you walk in to his office. Every staff member is encouraged to get photos taken for the Web, he said.

Outside of the University and his life as a photographer, Gunelson enjoys working with tools. Included in his handy work is a knack for woodworking. He builds cabinets, furniture and has remodeled his house. Computers are also a favorite of his, and he enjoys putting them together just as much as he likes utilizing them for his work.

“It’s been a good time here,” Gunelson said. “I’ve been here thirty years, and I will probably be here ‘til I retire.”