Alan Gunsbury, one of the pioneers in lakes area tourism, was remembered as a man of ideas, who believed in public service, the importance of a positive outlook, supporting local businesses and the power of hard work.
He died Wednesday, Sept. 18, at Hills Crossing of Nisswa following complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
He was 87.
Gunsbury, along with his wife Jane, bought and operated The Quarterdeck Resort and Restaurant on Gull Lake for 36 years, attracting customers from the state, nation and internationally with guests from as far as Brazil and Germany.
“He is a legend in the tourism industry, a tireless supporter of the small resort operation and a hands-on operator,” noted Lisa Paxton, entrepreneur and former longtime Brainerd Lakes Chamber CEO. “He’s a member of the generation that includes the Craguns, Ruttgers, Spizzos -- truly resort pioneers that helped establish our area as a premiere destination.”
Working in sales for a book publisher, Gunsbury came to the lakes area after living for a time in Illinois. Seeking a place to raise a family where they could all learn a strong work ethic, Gunsbury left that job to buy a Minnesota resort.
Born July 6, 1932, in Brooklyn, New York, to Cecil & Wilhelmina (Blass) Gunsbury, he was described as possessing an independent streak, which was attributed to his youth and the death of his mother when he was 8 years old. He was raised by his father and grandparents in Teaneck, New Jersey, and went to college there, graduating with a business administration degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army while studying for a master’s degree in economics. Time was on his side as his family reported he completed basic training just as the Korean War ended. On the plus side, he met his wife at a USO dance. They were married Oct. 5, 1967, in Medford, Massachusetts.
“His passions were economic development, student education and healthy living,” his obituary stated. “He was never too busy for a game of tennis or pickup basketball. Nevertheless, his primary goal was to prepare his children for an independent, fulfilling life realized thru helping them acquire experience in family business.”
Gunsbury received the Outstanding Individual Achievement Award for the Minnesota Bureau of Tourism for his creative marketing ideas. He co-founded the Congress of Minnesota Resorts and served on committees and boards, including the Brainerd Lakes and Nisswa chambers of commerce, Region Five Development Commission, Cass County Extension, Minnesota Resort Association, and Minnesota Hospitality Association. He was a Brainerd High School tennis coach for a couple of years.
“For those who knew him he was an effusively positive person,” his son Brent Gunsbury said Friday. “He worked very long hours and he was as determined as a bulldog on everything he pursued.”
Brent Gunsbury said his father’s work, friendships, relationships and support of local businesses and employees served as a genesis to establish an awards program for the lakes area business community. Gunsbury said he took the idea to Paxton, Sheila Haverkamp and Becky Best, three people to go to when the goal is to move a mountain. They supported the idea right away and the annual awards program was created to acknowledge local business owners who work hard for their employees and the community.
“My dad never asked for anything,” Brent Gunsbury said. “He never wanted a handout. He never asked for a handout, but he certainly embodied hard work and ethical business. … He also was an idea man.”
Known to possess three-ring binders with research and ideas on a number of topics, Brent Gunsbury said people could think those ideas were far-fetched or out there.
“Sometimes when you are an innovator and you have ideas ... sometimes you are ahead of your time in those ideas and what I’ve heard from a number of people who knew him, they have said, ‘Alan’s ideas were ahead of his time,’ but also extremely visionary in some of the topics he brought up in the community.”
As an example, Alan Gunsbury was an early champion of investing dollars in buying locally and how that reinvests in the community. He supported other businesses.
“He also advocated for excellence, for working hard and if there is something that you want, figure out who you need to talk to, to make that happen,” Brent Gunsbury said. “He was a very inspirational person. He would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.
“He was exceedingly, excessively, endlessly positive -- that was his personality. … He controlled his attitude every day and I think that is something we can all work on.”
The Gunsburys overcame challenges, rebuilding the well-known restaurant after a 1997 lightning strike and ensuing fire destroyed it. Within five months of the fire, the Boathouse bar-restaurant opened for 160 guests. Following the rebuild effort, consultants from the Small Business Development Center recognized the resort and the work of the Gunsburys following the fire as proof “teamwork and trust can turn tragedy into triumph.”
"We learned that if you trust people, if you let them do what they do best, you get it done," Alan Gunsbury said at the time.
The Gunsburys announced they were retiring and selling The Quarterdeck resort in the fall of 2011. They closed the Boathouse eatery in October of 2011. The property’s sale was completed in 2012. They noted they were able to operate and grow the resort with the help of family and dedicated staff.
At the time, the Gunsburys stated during their ownership they doubled the size of the resort facility and “contributed to community, state and national initiatives, and established a business that provides both seasonal and year-round jobs.”
Their five children were all raised in the lakes area, graduating from Brainerd High School.
From 1980 through 1988, three of the five children of Jane and Alan Gunsbury interrupted their college educations to serve Up with People, founded in 1965 to promote international friendship among young people, and the Gunsburys served as a host family.
"We wanted to educate our children to respect everybody and think in terms of the community," Alan Gunsbury said in a feature story in 1999. "When they went out into the world with Up with People, they had to respond on equal terms with people of different cultures. That's an incredible gift they could not have gotten any other way."
Best of all, the experience helped prepare the Gunsbury children for the independent, responsible, self-sufficient lives they have lived since completing their education and pursuing their professional careers, Gunsbury stated.
Gunsbury is survived by his wife, daughters, Lee (Terry) Seipp, Laurie (Wally) Leja, Gay (Chip) Zyvoloski and sons, Curt (Catherine) Gunsbury and Brent (Jenny) Gunsbury; 12 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is planned at 11 a.m. Oct. 5 at Halvorson Taylor Life Events Center. Visitation will be two hours before the service. Burial will be at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery, near Little Falls, at a later date.