Deceased June 20, 2008

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25th Reunion Book Entry

In Memory

Tom Hunter graduated from Amherst in 1968 with a major in religion. Among his Amherst College highlights were singing in the Glee Club and traveling as tour manager in the U.S. and Europe. The 1968 Olio shows a picture of him kissing the Pope’s ring.

After Amherst, Tom enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in New York, earned the master of divinity degree, and in 1972 was ordained in the United Church of Christ. He moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and worked as a youth minister while pursuing his music.    

He wrote a lot of songs and shared them widely: children’s songs, songs to build a sense of community and cooperation among people, and songs that spoke to social issues. He performed at large church assemblies and for conferences of school teachers.   He started his own recording company, The Song Growing Company. 

Tom wrote of his work, “Overall I am interested in the ways that folk music has historically been an accessible way to share the common concerns of our lives. I’m also interested in the way interacting with songs and writing new ones nourishes creativity, encouraging the skills of thought and reflection, developing self confidence.”

Tom married Gwen Alley in San Francisco in 1978. They were blessed with one son, Aeden, and one daughter, Irene. Even with all the time he spent on the road, Tom devoted lots of time and love to his family.

In 1979, Tom became a very popular Bay Area radio personality with a weekly show on the ABC affiliate KGO, “God Talk,” a program exploring matters of faith.

In 1984, he and his family moved to Bellingham, WA. Tom served as part-time minister at the Lummi Island United Church of Christ while maintaining his writing and performing. In 2000 Tom and Gwen bought an eleven-acre farm where they raised animals to develop their vision for strengthening youth and adults while teaching sensitivity to the ecosystems through an organization they called PAL—Partnering with Animals for the Land. Tom and Gwen worked to limit development while protecting rain forest around the Lake Whatcom Reservoir.

For these last twenty years, Tom traveled the U.S. and Canada singing in schools, giving workshops, and presenting keynote addresses. He encouraged hundreds of teachers in their craft, while teaching about the power of music and song for people of all ages, and he presented many events through the National Bureau of Education and Research. He retired from this work in March and was awarded a Golden Apple. 

He co-founded the Northwest Teachers’ Camp, now in its fourteenth year, and served as a “singer in residence” at the Bellingham public schools. The First Congregational Church (UCC) of Bellingham enlisted Tom to coordinate Christmas Eve services that drew thousands of people over the years. 

In April of 2008 Tom was called to be the lead pastor of the church. Shortly afterward, he became ill with a degenerative brain disease. He managed to preach his first sermon, with limited eyesight. The disease swiftly took hold, and he died at home. On that morning, his family announced his death on the blog they had been keeping (

“Tom took his last breath on June 20 at 3:39 a.m. surrounded by the three of us and an amazing amount of love. We cried, laughed, prayed, embraced, hummed ‘How Can I Keep From Singing’ and sang ‘The Garden Song.’ We lit a candle and applauded a life well lived.”

The late Robert McAfee Brown, a noted theologian, author, and social activist, wrote that Tom Hunter “. . . has an extraordinary ability to take important themes of our time and render them in songs in ways that are immediately illuminating and then remain, to empower and to haunt.”  

In addition to his wife and children, Tom is survived by other family members and a whole lot of loved ones and friends who keep singing his songs. 

Michael Bausch
David Mann

25th Reunion

I can’t remember what I thought I’d do or be 25 years after Amherst, except that it would have something directly to do with people – teaching, maybe, or counseling. There was definitely no thought of singing and writing folk songs for a living. There are a lot of other things I didn’t think about being too, like a linebacker or president or an astrophysicist. It feels a little like I started somewhere and just kept going and out of the keeping going there emerged something that’s satisfying and fun and a pretty good living. A meandering trail…

…..Peace corps training the summer after Amherst for 4 weeks before I couldn’t figure out why I should go to Afghanistan to teach English……Union Theological Seminary with an MDiv. Degree in 1972 (3 good years and now more ongoing connections that with Amherst)…..ordained United Church of Christ that summer……2 more years in NYC starting to write songs, living on nothing, working part-time here and there (church on Long Island, Brooklyn community center, Bowery shelter)……moved to San Francisco 1974 partly for love, partly for being tired of NYC, partly to get back to California (I grew up in Claremont)…..worked part-time as an assistant minister in Melo Park mostly with a big youth program and started putting together free-lance music gigs in schools and churches……met Gwen 1975, had son Aeden 1976, married Gwen 1978, all the while doing more and more music along with the youth program……1979 was asked to do a radio show on KGO in San Francisco, 3-hour Sun. morning forum on religion/values/spirituality (nobody knew any other show like it in the country, it grew to be no. 1 in its timeslot)…… the music kept growing……became adjunct faculty (5 years) at Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley)……1982 daughter Irene was born…..1984 quit KGO, moved to Bellingham, WA with lots of possibilities but no particular job in sight (not my first choice but Gwen was insistent it was a better and cheaper and saner place for a family and raising kids – she was right, I’m a convert!)…..1985 I became half-time minister at the Lummi Island Congregational Church (only church on an island of 500 people, geographically just this side of paradise)…..the music kept growing and by 1988 there were too many invitations to keep part-time church and part-time music together…..

So I now do music full-time, a minstrel to schools and churches – keynote speeches/concerts at conferences, workshops for elementary school teachers encouraging more use of music in schools and classrooms, assemblies and classroom visits in schools, community concerts for kids and families, consulting on issues of special education and music and self-esteem. I travel the country (this past year to Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Arizona, California, and Hawaii) , and turn down about 1/3 of the invitations I  get because I don’t want to be gone from home and family more than necessary. Almost in spite of us our family business The Song Growing Co. grows more solid all the time – producing 8 tapes and a song book, wife Gwen does the business and office work, son Aeden works for us (and plays solid bass) and so does Irene. We’ve got a bunch of animals and lots of raspberries. We’ve been a foster family and love to host big backyard barbeque sings twice a year. Writing a good song is still the most satisfying thing to me and little by little the songs have gone out to make their own friends. I can’t remember who said it but I mostly agree: “I care not who makes the laws as long as I can write the songs.”

Amherst seems more than geographically far away from me now. Some memories come back clearly – Glee Club, cross country, being dorm proctor, Eng. 102, and jobs at Frost and Valentine. But I don’t know that it’s “the fairest college of them all.” There’s no bitterness or rancor in that thought, just honest reflection. I now think I worked too hard there; if I were to do it again, I’d have more fun. I’m not sure I’d even apply now (I’ll be fascinated to see what my 16-year-old son does about college). I no longer value highly selective, intensely competitive situations. It’s hard to chart the course of such changes – no big events or blaring trumpets. I also think there are important issues about Lord Jeff and his time that don’t need to be canonized in song and legend.

What I do value about Amherst now is an excellent liberal arts training of my mind and sensibilities, a commitment to rigor when thinking something through. That training and rigor, plus time spent since Amherst developing my own curiosity and imagination have made me a good teacher. I make a lot of my living by writing in  and finding uses for one of the simplest and most accessible of expressive forms, folk songs. And I want the songs to “ring true,” to not be simplistic but reflective of the ambivalence and nuance most of us experience in our lives and/or faith. I thank Amherst for that. I’m repeatedly told that my songs and what I do with them are different from other folks. I thank Amherst for solidifying in me the notion (from my upbringing) that having some rationale for what’s “good” gives vision and direction toward implementing it. My political thinking, awakened in my family, was strengthened at Amherst too, and it’s grown more radical since. I remember long struggling conversations about Vietnam and my conviction I wouldn’t let go. I remember too black folks teaching me the fallacy of just seeing them as folks because they needed to be seen as black and different from white. I remember thinking that some ideas and visions are worth embodying, living out with our bodies, standing up for.

Details and stories fascinate me most these days. I don’t recall whether Amherst put me on the trail of good details. I do recall that my interest in story started there. Twenty five years later, I’m deeply grateful for building a life and a business that gives time for paying attention to details and stories – dinner almost every night (except when traveling) around the table with family, projects and music with my kids, a commitment to write letters each week to a good friend (more than 10 years now), lingering with my wife’s memories. I’ve learned that great truths and significance come in everyday ordinary places, and in the stories we tell about them – in a manger, for example, or some candles that recall history or a moment of decision or tragedy that changed a life. I can’t remember who first said “God is in the details” but it’s true.

Taking stock of 25 years makes me pensive. So do these days when friends are working on memories of childhood abuse, families are splitting up, and people we know are losing jobs and struggling to make it. I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the reservoirs of pain and sadness. And then I’m even more overwhelmed by the courage that pushes people toward healing, by kindness that reaches out and by moments of joy that grow huge. Songs have a way of surrounding all that, of mourning and celebrating when we don’t know how else to. I guess that’s why I write them and sing them. Amherst allowed me and helped me lay the base for hwo I am now, for how I think, for what I sing about. I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful for the chance to remember and to think it through again…

Tom Hunter