In his varied career, one thing has been consistent about Tony Gruenewald. He is a river through which language flows, frequently changing its course and his. And Gruenewald, who will receive a master’s degree in library science this week from the School of Communication and Information, has gone with that flow.
Gruenewald first passed through SC&I in 1981, receiving his B.A. in journalism and media studies. He interned at a radio station and then went to work as a copywriter for Rickel, the now-defunct chain of hardware stores. Writing print, radio and television ad copy touting lumber sales and home improvement tools soaked up some of Gruenewald’s literary energy, but not all.
“When I was a copywriter, I would ask myself, ‘Is this what I’m doing with my life?’” he recalled. “I started to write prose fiction – really terrible prose fiction.”
Gruenewald was fortunate in having a boss who appreciated Gruenewald’s curiosity and intelligence. The business was computerizing, and Gruenewald became the ad-hoc, in-house computer guru for his group. “I went from paste-up to desktop,” he recalled.
“My boss said, ‘Learn whatever you want to learn; anything you want to try, any class you want to take, go for it.’” So Gruenewald mastered the various iterations of Windows and Word and Quark Express, as Rickel struggled unsuccessfully to compete with Home Depot.
And all the while, there was poetry. Gruenewald, a lifelong resident of Edison, found himself drawn to poetry slams in places like the Melody Bar in New Brunswick. His first collection of poems, The Secret History of New Jersey, was published by Northwind Publishing in 2009. He also took on the role of production manager of the Edison Literary Review, an annual magazine that has included work by Pulitzer and Pushcart Prize winners.
At Rickel, despite Gruenewald’s ad copy and hard-won computer skills, things went from bad to bankrupt in the late 1990s. Gruenewald had been volunteering for a nonprofit organization, Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic, which recorded books – mainly textbooks – for blind and dyslexic students. In 1998, as Rickel sank under him, Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic – now called Learning Ally -- threw him a line, and he joined its staff. He’s been there ever since.
Gruenewald recorded books, but he also helped the organization go from reel-to-reel tape recorders to digital recorders, recruited and trained staff and did whatever else needed doing. “When the economy tanked in ’07, I was shocked not to be laid off,” he said. “A lot of my colleagues were.” He credits his survival partly to his reputation for “being able to find stuff out.”
A few years ago, Gruenewald’s girlfriend suggested he go to graduate school and get his MLIS. Gruenewald had never thought of becoming a librarian. Then it occurred to him that he was a librarian, and had been for years. “I looked into it and decided that I worked for a library,” he said. “It’s a special collection, but it’s a library. So I went back to school. It was the logical next step.”
With most of his 40s already in his rear-view mirror, Gruenewald found he had some adjusting to do in graduate school. “Most of my classmates were younger,” he said. “Most of them brought laptops to class. I couldn’t sit in the back of the class because I was distracted by other people’s laptops.”
But Gruenewald also brought some street-cred with him. Not only had he seen and used card catalogs, he knew a lot about such librarian’s arcana as digital preservation because he and his colleagues at Learning Ally had done it. All of his experiences, and all his acquired skills, along with his native ability to find stuff out, have led him through Rutgers twice, and he looks forward to the rest of the journey. As he put it in his poem Directions:
Get off at Exit 9.
It’s a little out of the way,
But a missed turn
Can’t land you
On the Outerbridge
To Staten Island.