The Passing of Pete Gunter


It is with great sadbess that we note the passing of Pete Gunter, who was a special friend and supporter of AIPCT, especially gthrough the programs paid for by the Foundation for the Philosophy of Creativity.

“Pete” Addison Yancey Gunter (1936-2024)

Pete Gunter

Pete Gunter was born in Hammond, Indiana on October 20, 1936, and passed away March 6, 2024, in Dallas. In between was a remarkable life and career of service, teaching, scholarship, music, and family life. The irony of being born in Indiana was never lost on this true son of Texas, so he got home as soon as he could (at age 10). “Pete” was a nickname, but that’s what everyone called him, the real name being shared with generations before him and not so easy to shorten. Pete’s colorful writings about Texas, both fiction and nonfiction, provide a clear picture of the deep roots and entanglements of the Gunter family with the Red River region. Pete’s family was among those who settled (some would say “invaded”) the region before and just after the Civil War. He was an amateur genealogist, gathering and propagating information about the Gunters for posterity. Pete finished high school in Gainesville, and then graduated from the University of Texas in 1958. From there he went to Cambridge University as a Marshall Scholar, taking the BA in 1960 (the equivalent of our MA), and he completed his Ph.D. at Yale in 1963.

Pete taught at Auburn University 1963-65, and then at the University of Tennessee Knoxville from 1965-69. He marched with the Civil Rights marchers during his time in Alabama and Tennessee, a bold decision for those places and times. These assignments were preparation for his two great callings: the establishment of the Philosophy Department at the University of North Texas, and the designation of the Big Thicket as the nation’s first Biological Preserve. The first required a vision for a new kind of philosophy, built around ecological and environmental ideas. Over the decades it became possible for UNT to pioneer the interdisciplinary Ph.D. in environmental philosophy. But perhaps it is more important that Pete modeled the ideas being taught in his persistent activism, adding to the Big Thicket preserve, through politicking, lobbying, cajoling, persuading, fund-raising, and articulating the vision for what makes a biological preserve and integral ecosystem. Pete was always quick to credit others above himself for the work, but the truth is that the Big Thicket as it currently exists is Pete’s gift to Texas and the world. If a philosophy is valued based on the concrete difference it makes in the world, I know of no one who could claim to have lived to see greater results from a philosophical idea. The fruition of Pete Gunter’s vision came both academically and in changes to our laws, practices, and understanding of what is of value to our lives.

Pete’s scholarly work encompassed the full range of both philosophy and environmental science, from physics and biology to ethics and education. His work on Henri Bergson (1859-1941) made him the world’s leading expert on that great philosopher. Pete stayed abreast of developments in science and the philosophy of science and never doubted that in the end reductionist models would be replaced by more open process thinking. He followed the dictum that it is better to put forward that which is best in our thinking and to ignore that which is worst. Pete knew a dead end when he saw one, but did not think it was his job to point out the obvious. He edited and contributed to many books, and his list of refereed articles was very long. His single-authored books were not easy to classify, only one or two being of the ordinary scholarly variety. Add to these books about the Big Thicket, a novel that was thinly veiled autobiography, and a number of historical writings, and one has the compendium of a sort of Texas-style Renaissance man.

As a member of the profession of academic philosophers, Pete held many positions of importance and service, including his decades-long work with and for the Foundation for the Philosophy of Creativity, and its related Societies, which he served for half a century, most of it as Chair of the Board. He led in making judicious decisions about how to bring the Foundation’s resources to the best use to fulfill its mission. He was President of the Southwestern Philosophical Society (1978-79) and an active past president.

Music held a special place in Pete’s life, and I expect he is probably the only person who ever delivered a Presidential address for a serious philosophical society on guitar. Pete liked to write parody lyrics with philosophical themes to well-known show tunes, reminiscent of Tom Lehrer’s songs. But Pete also wrote ballads of his own telling stories of Texas and it many characters and the indignities and injustices they suffered. He wrote songs about the land and the forest, and also songs with a decidedly folk-style protest ring. He had a thin but pleasing bluesy voice, and I can still hear him singing the “Peloponnesian War Blues,” his Vietnam protest song:

Don’t wanna go down to Sparta, fight no Peloponnesian War

Yes I burned my toga, cause I don’t know what I’m fightin’ for

A buddy of mine got ninety-nine years, for burning a bunch of army surplus spears

Don’t wanna go down to Sparta, fight no Peloponnesian War


They say if you religious you’ll burn Old Sparta down

If you believe in Jesus, you’ll burn the Peloponnesus to the ground

Never made much sense to me, to kill for Christ in 399 BC

Don’t wanna go down to Sparta, fight no Peloponnesian War

This contains the greatest internal rhyme in the history of the blues –“Jesus” being not an easy word to rhyme. Pete was not very religious, unless one means his view of nature, and in that case he was religious indeed. But he was always willing to smile and keep his tongue when someone else was making a fool of himself about such matters. Pete wrote serious music as well, to the degree that seriousness could be tolerated.

If anything surpassed music among his avocations, it was storytelling. He had his favorites that one was likely to hear more than once, but he was always collecting more. He wasn’t given to drinking at all, due to a lifelong battle with diabetes, but when others were partaking, Pete often launched into stories and in the telling his pale blue eyes would flash and twinkle so that one might believe he had just enough of the firewater to channel a spirit or three. This magic is present in his fiction and near-fiction writing. If one knew his voice and style, reading his stories is a lively exercise in auditory imagination. You forget you’re reading.

Pete Gunter was devoted to his family, and is survived by spouse Liz and daughter Sheila. He was a loyal friend to countless lucky people, including the present writer for some 35 years, and will be sorely missed and lovingly remembered.

Pete Gunter’s Life Celebration was May 25, 2024 in Denton, TX. A number of people spoke. Here is the eulogy given by Randall Auxier on that occasion.

Memory Matters: Telling Pete Gumter’s Stories

By Way of a Beginning

In the 35 years I knew Pete Gunter, I have had the privilege of learning a good deal about the man behind the philosopher. Among the most personable of Texans, the man was not only easy to get to know, he was difficult to resist. Pete seemed to know everyone and everyone seemed to know Pete.

The more one looks at Pete’s life and achievements, the more evident is the core of his interests. The Renaissance man –philosopher, environmentalist, composer, songwriter, novelist, historian, genealogist, humanitarian—begins to come into focus only when you realize that Pete Gunter was a fellow out for a good time. But that doesn’t mean just what it sounds like. A “good time” is the best a finite person can hope to achieve in life, or if not wholly good, at least something to mitigate the boredom. But in his literary guise, Pete showed up when it’s all over, sifting the ruins of history, trying to find anything good, and usually failing. I wonder that he ever got a date. Must have been his boyish good looks.

It falls to me, as I understand it, briefly to take the measure of some of Pete’s achievements within and beyond the professional discipline of philosophy and his impressive environmental activism

A Little Family History

Anyone who ever knew Pete, even if only briefly, knew that he told stories. His stories were usually historical, whether casual recollections, or observations about human oddities, foibles, and failings, or ones that start out “did you know that . . .” followed by some remarkable tidbit of fact. He wasn’t one to invent things. Pete wrote about things that really happened, or almost happened, or should have happened. If he told you a story in conversation, it usually ended with a question and a shake of the head, a sort of “can you believe that?” and truth-is-stranger-than-fiction sigh. He wrote like he talked, and that isn’t easy to do. The style is down home, easy, wry, and reading it makes your brain feel like your face does when you’re shading it from the Texas sun while trying to carry on a conversation.

Pete’s family history was dotted with colorful characters, but the whole lot of Gunters is pretty surely insane, Pete not excepted. (I speak as a Gunter myself, on my mother’s side -–Pete was a cousin, although I think we are something like seven generations removed.) Still, the crazy gene isn’t recessive. It manifests eventually, one way or another, in most of the Gunters. I believe the statistics would bear me out. Pete’s “fiction” (which I highly recommend), is largely fact, excavations of his family’s past, and always with the sense that there is something inescapable about one’s family line. It isn’t about fate, or destiny, it’s about the active presence of the past, but also about the weight of the past. Pete’s hero Henri Bergson believed that nothing of the past is lost in the present and all of the past is actively present, and Pete’s writing addresses and claims that point of view. In the short run, the past presses so hard upon the present that it leaps into the future and we end up repeating what we have done before. In the long run, the weight of the past becomes too much to bear and vitality becomes too diffused to bring about meaningful change. The universe just goes to sleep, sort of. Either way, as you see, Pete is still with us.

The weight of history upon family organization and filial vitality is also under these temporal influences. It is well illustrated in the main character of Pete’s novel River in Dry Grass. Pete published this novel in 1984, although I suspect it had been in the making for a number of years. It is loosely autobiographical, with some changes to protect the semi-innocent along with the outright guilty. Set in 1959, it is the coming-of-age story of a fellow named Jim Tremorgan, a graduate student who has gone north from Beaumont to study with the “yankees,” a choice not easily comprehended by his relatives in the fictional north Texas town of McKittrick. This coming-of-age occurs late in life, since it is a struggle with truth, history, and the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons. It isn’t kid-stuff.

The relevant theology, very much Pete’s theology, is articulated by Jim’s no-good Uncle Bascomb. The hard drinking, shifty greysheep is in his fifties, I think, hardly wizened but growing contemplative as the meaning of finitude dawns on him. While everyone bakes in the Texas heat on the front porch one afternoon he confesses:

“Well some nights I pray,” Bascomb began, “Been praying for three, four years now that the Lord’ll come take me away.”

Lord, Lord,” said Ben Bob. “Lord, Lord.” . . .

“But he won’t do it. There ain’t anything after death. I know that. People talk about heaven and hell but, by God, we have our hell right here on earth. Be just like the sonuvabitch; you ask Him to take you, but He won’t. Hell, after you’ve had hell on earth, it’d be just like Him to take you’n give you hell from then on in someplace else.” Bascomb scratched his club foot. “No, there ain’t no hell after this earth. We got hell enough right here and now.” (RDG p. 125)

I don’t know who Uncle Bascomb was modeled on, but some of you listening probably do. People like Bascomb are worried over matters that philosophers and theologians can’t really clarify just by tidying the language used to assert the dilemma of knowing we will die. Young Jim Tremorgan, or, more precisely, Justinian Kilkenny Tremorgan IV (a fair alias for Addison Yancey Gunter III), tries to escape the cycles of Texas samsara. He’s a lot like Pete. Most people wouldn’t be aware that the name “Gunter” is shortened from “Tregunter,” which was the older Welsh form of the name. That name was taken on by Pete’s (and my own) forefathers after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when some Brittany Gunters did service to William the Conqueror and were rewarded with land and the Sheriff’s authority in Wales. I think that the “Tre” in Welsh is a prefix for the surnames of the landed class. Pete would have known. I wish I had asked him.

At some point along the way, the “Tre” seems to have exited “Gunter,” perhaps about about the same time that Gunter history decided to re-situate itself in the New World, for reasons that remain lost to history. But the fictional Tremorgans fared slightly better. Pete tells us that “Jim” Tremorgan calls himself by that simple name because all other short names for “Justinian Kilkenny” have been taken by his dynastic male elders, Sr., Jr., and III. Incidentally, that is also why “Pete” Gunter called himself “Pete” –it isn’t his real name. His name is Addison Yancey Gunter, III, which did not admit of easy shortening, especially when one’s father and grandfather have already claimed the most obvious candidates. So, it was down to either Pete or Bubba.

Autobiographical clues are throughout that novel, but Pete wasn’t trying to conceal anything or make it into a mystery for some bored lit. professor to solve. He was doing what we all need to do, which is “write what you know.” Pete knew about Texas and the odd psychic configurations of Texans. If you want to know the real Pete Gunter, read that book. It reads a bit like Hunter S. Thompson without the drugs. But it gets you both the weird sort of crazy that is the Gunters as lived out in Texas. Regions have their own kinds of “crazy.” Like Larry Flynt was “Kentucky crazy.” Anne Rice was New Orleans crazy. Faulkner’s characters, along with Faulkner himself, were “Mississippi crazy.”

Now, “Texas crazy” is a little different. For one thing, it’s more dangerous than your other kinds of homegrown crazy, because it tends to be better armed. Why use a derringer when a shotgun will do? Well, everything’s bigger in Texas. And “Texas crazy” is musical, and it dances two steps over a hop and a slide. Also there is a sort of Mexican flavoring about “Texas crazy” that makes it better at poker than, say, Tennessee crazy, which is equally musical but loses all its money and drowns itself in bourbon. No, I’m pretty sure that no other kind of Southern crazy can beat Texas at poker. Pete gets Texas crazy as well as any writer I’ve read.

The novel ends with the protagonist coming to a momentous decision, for him, to let the past be buried and to disappear. In short, he decides to defy, if he can, Bergson’s principle about the full and active presence of the past. If the past can’t be undone, and it cannot, then why not at least put it to sleep? This is Jim Tremorgan’s choice, and the reasons for it, insofar as there are any, don’t add up and never will and never can. Justice cannot really be served when everyone deserves worse than he is getting, so mercy is a new secular universalism. There are no fallen angels begging for redemption in Texas, just earthly exiles seeking resident amnesty.

That is pretty much how Pete told his own story, in 1984 and later, and until the end. He did a lot for other people, and for me, but what he really left us was his stories. May they live forever.


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