Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.
Residing on Kalamazoo’s Eastside for the past 70 years, 50 of those in her current home, Gwen Tulk has found freedom in modest living.
“If you find a place that you’re comfortable in and it’s not exorbitant, buy it, and have it paid for,” says Tulk, who will be celebrating her 102nd
birthday in April. “That’s what my husband and I did and we traveled all over.”
A former librarian at Northeastern Junior High (now Northeastern Elementary School), Tulk not only traveled to every continent except Australia, she also opened her Eastside home to foreign exchange students at a time when it was far less common, introducing them to the Eastside.
Her first exchange student, an African American girl named Kitty, was actually from the South where schools were still segregated at the time. “Blacks were not allowed to attend white schools, but I belonged to an organization up here that sponsored students from the South,” she says. “She stayed with me and went to (Kalamazoo) Central.”
She’s also had students from European countries and was one of the first area families to host a student from Africa. Those experiences helped Tulk understand other cultures through relationships. “I love to see new places and new people, and open up my home to their talk and their company,” she says.
An avid reader, Tulk also says she’s traveled through books. “By opening a book to read, you open a door and go out and take a trip,” she says, adding that since she had to review a lot of books, she became a “rapid reader,” enjoying most “a good love story.”
From those books, travels, and hospitalities, Tulk has memories she continues to savor. A staunch defender of the Eastside, a neighborhood she thinks is misunderstood by those who don’t know it well, her curiosity and “gift of gab,” a trait she shares with her husband, now deceased, continue to make her many friends.
Around the World in 102 Years
Tulk used to keep a drawer of maps, which she often poured over with her husband, studying routes and places they had been. But as her eyesight has diminished, she’s slowly been giving her maps away. Her treasures are her travel diaries.
The first opportunity to travel arrived one day when her husband, who was from England, was reading the newspaper and wondered aloud what his old town looked like.
“Why don’t you go see?’” Tulk says she said to him. “The most astute thing I ever said in my whole life. That was the beginning of my travels.”
After that first trip, the couple frequently planned trips all over the world, and after his passing, Tulk traveled with groups. A self-proclaimed “local yokel,” Tulk grew up in Mattawan, graduating with a class of 12. She remembers feeling like a “small fish in a big pond” when she attended Western Michigan University.
“Being the first one in my family who ever did anything like (world travel), they all said, ‘Aren’t you afraid? You don’t speak the language',” says Tulk. “I knew enough common courtesies to get along.”
She remembers fondly a time when she and her husband were camping in France, but couldn’t remember how to return to their campsite. A family stopped and tried to give the couple directions, but could see they didn’t understand. “We looked perplexed,” she says. “And they told us to get in their car and drove us there. They didn’t want us to get lost. I will always remember that.”
And of all the places she’s been, Tulk says she was most charmed by the second largest city in Spain.
“Barcelona is my favorite city,” says Tulk. “It was so friendly and open, and I liked being on the water and walking on the Ramblas (a boulevard) down to the Mediterranean,” she says. “I should have been black and blue all over for the many times I pinched myself. ‘This isn’t Gwen. This is somebody else.’”
Her greatest mementos were not trinkets or souvenirs. “I kept a journal for every trip we made,” says Tulk. “The first trip we made to Europe, I kept a diary and my husband kept a diary. That’s in one book. So every once in a while, I’ll go back and pick out a year.
“As I say, those journals are right here,” she says, tapping her forehead and smiling fondly. “I have every bit of those trips in my mind. I can practically tell you what we ate.”
Eastside Oasis: A modest house on four lots
Tulk has something you don’t see often in the city, a house on four lots. The first lot she purchased is behind her house. She noticed it was available after she bought her home. The additional two, she purchased when houses on each side of hers burnt down.
“It’s been very quiet in my particular area,” says Tulk. “They talk about the Eastside being bad and all, and I have never seen it. It really bugs me. Maybe there is a house or two that’s bad. People get the wrong impression.”
For years, she was a passionate gardener with a huge vegetable plot in the back, the harvest of which she shared with neighbors. Nowadays, Tulk watches the wildlife from her window chair, particularly the birds and her favorite, the Baltimore Oriole.
“I like my space. I always had good neighbors. They’ve been troublesome, yes. But I’ve been troublesome to them, too. I like my ways.”
On her block, Tulk was the neighbor who collected for charities and held block parties in her garage. “I never thought about the dangers of collecting that money, bringing it home, and then taking it downtown,” she says.
“I hoped I was making a good impact,” she says. “Usually there were people who had no advantage whatsoever. I was trying to imply to them, you take advantage of what you have and build on that.”
She feels grateful to still be in her home. “I feel very comfortable. I feel very safe here. I feel I can breathe.
“I’ve really enjoyed my life. And I’ve tried to make it really worthwhile for me and for my friends. I don’t know why I’m here so long, but I guess it’s for a reason,” she says with a delightful laugh.
Tulk raised a son on the Eastside, but sadly, he passed away. With two grandsons and nieces and nephews who visit for “a gabfest,” Tulk says she doesn’t feel isolated.
“We live such a high-pressure life and go, go, go. I tell people, stop and smell the roses. Sometimes when you get old, like I am, with lots of time, I get tired of smelling the roses. I could do for a little more activity.”
Sphere of influence
“She’s a peach,” says April Ouweleen, a longtime neighbor whose yard is adjacent. “If she’s up and the deer come by, she and I talk on the phone at midnight and discuss the deer crossing between our yards.”
Tulk’s influence and encouragement set Ouweleens’s own mother on the path of becoming a librarian. Together with Lorna Chapman, best known for her Buchwagen, a mini Eastside Kalamazoo Public Library bookmobile packed into her Volkswagen in the 1970s, the three shared a working bond and kept connected over the years.
Tulk’s influence also extends to former students. “Junior high kids are so unpredictable,” says Tulk, adding it was a quality she liked. “You never know what they’ll do.”
Over 40 years after her retirement, a former student from Northeastern still visits her at Christmas each year, bringing her cookies and introducing her to his family as “my old librarian.”
“Somehow I must have touched him,” she says.
Her influence also radiates into the wider Kalamazoo community. A longtime volunteer for many organizations, including Senior Services of Kalamazoo, Tulk was awarded the 2017 Senior Citizen Award of the Year
by the State of Michigan for 30 years of work with Meals on Wheels, a pastime she started with her husband following his retirement and which she continued after his death until she was 99.
“I loved meeting new people,” says Tulk. “Seniors definitely needed those meals. We’d chit-chat for a few minutes. I didn’t have long. They would have talked forever, which I understand now.”
Tulk shares qualities with many centenarians, including moderation and a zest for life.
“I’ve always been healthy, and I don’t mean to be bragging. I don’t do anything to excess,” says Tulk, who says she still eats three meals a day and rides her exercise bike during the nightly news. “And I really enjoy being alive and kicking and able to do things. It’s hard to express. I love life.”
Photos by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography