The one-time political activist and civil rights leader now runs the Walkers Point Center for the Arts.
A world traveler, urbanist and environmentalist, Gary Tuma was a peace activist who campaigned for George McGovern and went on to hold many important positions in Milwaukee, culminating in what he calls his “final job,” as Executive Director of the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts. He’s come a long way from Medford, WI, a small town in Taylor County in north central Wisconsin.
Imagine being the son of parents who owned and operated Bob’s Drive-In, a burger and custard stand in Medford, Wisconsin. Young Gary was employed there from tender age of ten (his duty: empty garbage cans and clean the toilets), to the restless age of nineteen. Ever the hard worker, he rose to the position of carhop and finally, manager.
“As a carhop,” he laughs, “I had to complete with all the high school cheerleaders who were hired each summer. I thought it was me who all the guys wanted to hang with.”
Medford was not only the Mink Ranch Capitol of the World, but when Tuma lived there, it was the home of Joe “Pep” Simek, he who operated Tombstone Tap, and made millions when he invented Tombstone Pizza., made of course, with Wisconsin cheese.
There’s many a story attached to Tombstone Pizza. The Tombstone Tap was located across from a cemetery where generations of Tuma’s relatives rest in peace. Tuma’s cousin was a bartender at the Tap and his brother-in-law was a Tombstone Pizza salesman. For some years, Tuma’s dad offered Tombstone Pizza at the family drive-in, but eventually sold pizza made with a sauce recipe provided by a woman who owned a Medford bar.
Gary Robert Tuma was born in 1952 and educated in Our Lady of the Holy Rosary grade school, where he was an altar boy and 6th grade editor of the “Hootenanny Gazette.” He recalls that his four siblings and numerous cousins and neighborhood kids, “spent their free time out of doors, and out of significant trouble.” That wouldn’t have been too much of a problem in a town of just 4,000 souls.
“No one believes that I attended the 1967 Ice Bowl at Lambeau Field,” Tuma says. “I was 15-years-old and don’t remember a lot except it was extremely cold. People ask why I don’t have a ticket stub since it was such a famous game. I wonder how many of the 50,000 plus fans kept their stubs.” He adds that the Dallas fans were so cold some of them purchased Packer hats to keep warm in the minus 48 degree wind chill nightmare. The Packers iced the Cowboys.
His first real gun was a Sears & Roebuck single shot .22, a Christmas gift that allowed him to hunt rabbit and squirrel with his dad, an avid hunter and fisherman. By the time he got to college, his hunting days were over. Tuma no longer owns a gun.
In high school he was a member of student government, and as a senior was a member of the 1970 WIAA High School Championship Curling Team, the sport of egalitarians. “Farmers, bankers and factory workers, could join the club and compete,” he says. “It was not a country club thing.” In 1969, his mom was a member of the Badger State Womens’ Championship Team in curling. Through it all, he continued to work at the drive-in. Today, he still loves burgers and French fries drenched in mayo.
Almost every penny he earned was deposited in a savings account at the local bank. Thrift was his by-word. Waste Not; Want Not. Turn off the lights, shut the door, we are not living in a barn. He says people have called him cheap. Tuma hangs his laundry out at least seven months each year, grows vegetables in his backyard, rides a bike to Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, and washes out zip lock bags so they can be reused.
In the spring of 1971, even before he was in college, Tuma organized Medford’s first anti-war demonstration. He grew out of his buzz cut and into longer locks, and enrolled in his local community college.
As a freshman, he was influenced by the many Vietnam vets and liberal college professors. One in particular, his political science professor, Robert Bence, introduced him to the McGovern campaign, and before long, Tuma was cited as a “rural whiz kid” who helped George McGovern carry Taylor County in the Wisconsin primary. He worked the rest of the primary circuit in California and was recruited to become a field coordinator in Central Ohio for the general election.
Back in college, at UW-Stevens Point, Tuma majored in political science and history, with an emphasis in U.S. electoral processes and African American history. He was active in the United Farm Workers boycott, and that led to becoming a tutor for children of migrant workers in the Stevens Point area. By his senior year, he had participated in a Soviet Seminar that took him to the Soviet Union, and from that he got the “travel bug.” After college, Tuma took a four-month backpacking vacation in Europe.
It was the beginning of a life-long avocation. Over the years, Tuma has traveled to 36 different countries and an equal number of states, has visited Europe six times and traveled to South America.
Milwaukee beckoned to Tuma in 1977; he came here to pursue a graduate degree in Urban Affairs at UW-Milwaukee. He went on to hold many positions, as a youth employment specialist with the Social Development Commission, as Deputy Director of Project Equality of Wisconsin (handling issues of equal employment and affirmative action), Executive Director of Kindcare, Inc. (which provides programs for adults with disabilities), and 12 years as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Region of the National Conference for Community and Justice, which provided leadership on civil rights issues, including training new leaders through its youth programs.
Tuma is not an artist, but has now served seven years, longer than any past director of the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts. He’s guided it (with a yearly budget of approximately $350,000) in its search and acquisition of its present building (at 839 S. 5th St.), and overseen the continued expansion of art education, exhibition and programming at the center.
Since moving to Milwaukee, Tuma has lived in Riverwest — for more than three decades — and has served on the boards of many social groups and cooperatives in his neighborhood. “Material stuff has never been a big deal for me, and I have no mortgage.” he says. “Health insurance costs are probably the biggest obstacle to my retiring before Medicare eligibility.” At age 60, he has a dream of retiring, possibly to Central America. “I anticipate that I am in the final full time job of my career, but I’ve saved money since my first job in the late 70’s.”
Tuma’s life has taken many twists and turns, but the core of it goes back to his youth in Medford, where he learned the value of hard work, and was inspired by the idealism of Senator George McGovern. The “Conscience of America,” as McGovern was sometimes called, died in October of this year, at age 90.
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People: Gary Tuma
Building(s): 839 S. 5th St.
Neighborhood(s): Riverwest, Walker’s Point