Tony Gianunzio had a sense that he was different. As the seventh son of 11 children, Gianunzio grew up in the Upper Peninsula in a bustling Italian immigrant family where individuality was encouraged. A keen observer, he soaked up everything he saw and still wanted more.
“I had a crazy notion in my young life that I wanted to know everything and everybody. I even had a short period of a few weeks when I was sad I couldn’t know everybody in the world,” says Gianunzio, 91, a retired Portage English teacher, former newspaper writer and now book author, whose first book, The Last Romantic War: A Blind Date with History, was self-published last year through the services of Black Lake Studio & Press, in Holland, Mich.
“I always had a love for finding out how something works. I liked to get down to the essence of a thing,” he says.
It wasn’t until he was 47 and enrolled in a graduate literature course at Western Michigan University in 1969 that Gianunzio realized there was a name for what he was: a Romantic. “I wish I had known earlier because I spent a lot of time thinking about how I got this way,” he says. “I knew it wasn’t typical.”
Romanticism, an intellectual movement that began in the late 18th century, “emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Not only did Gianunzio identify his own worldview through that term, but he learned that Romanticism generated historic and cultural changes and formed the very foundation of America. His proclivity toward understanding Romanticism, in the world and in himself, has been growing since he took that course at WMU, informing his teaching, his relationships and his writing.
As a young Romantic, Gianunzio was fortunate to grow up in Iron Mountain, Mich., in love with a Romantic sport — baseball — and in a very Romantic period for the United States, just before World War II began. In fact, as a talented young pitcher, 19-year-old Gianunzio was drafted for a Chicago Cubs tryout. He unfortunately didn’t go because another important letter arrived in his mailbox: this one from Uncle Sam. “Roosevelt lowered the draft age to 19,” he recalls.
“Armed with a cloth-covered prayer, a romantic heart, and a philosopher’s soul, I left youth and home behind to go to war,” writes Gianunzio in The Last Romantic War.
Gianunzio’s book chronicles his three-plus years in the U.S. Coast Guard, 14 months of which were spent in the Pacific theater. It was a period in America’s history when its self-image was strong. “World War II was a righteous war,” writes Gianunzio, “but to me, even more than this, its shadowy charm lingered, unforgettably, setting the stage for surprising appearances.”
After boot camp, an opportunity created by a superior’s oversight allowed Gianunzio to become a gunner’s mate on the frigate U.S.S. Machias, on duty in the Pacific. There he set aside his birth name, Idolo, and became Buzz, a fun-loving, friendly and adventurous member of the Coast Guard.
“I had no business being a gunner’s mate because I didn’t like grease, crescent wrenches or screwdrivers, but I thought if I was going to be on the ship, I wanted to be where the action was,” he says. “That’s one of my faults.” Gianunzio even fit in a few moments for baseball, which included one opportunity to unknowingly pitch against Major Leaguer Glenn McQuillen of the Saint Louis Browns.
Now Gianunzio, who is still spry and has sparkling eyes and ample hair, can be found most Saturday mornings at Water Street Coffee Joint on Oakland Drive with his cohorts, a small group of his former crossword puzzle gang, including his wife, Carolyn, that has been gathering for 13 years to share coffee and conversation. He has a flair for stories, relishing the details. “I never write an empty sentence,” he says. He never speaks one either.
And he’s seldom idle and never bored. These days he’s at work on a new book, a little more theoretical than his first and based on an examination of various worldviews. “My first book is a blind date with history,” Gianunzio says. “This next one is more like an odyssey. The American Dream is about the opportunity to achieve one’s destiny: to grow up, to find out what life is about, to become. I really feel I’ve done that. I’m still becoming. I’ll stop when I die, probably.”
The Last Romantic War: A Blind Date with History is available at Michigan News Agency, 308 W Michigan Ave., and online through Amazon and Kindle.