Tom Junod

Photo: Hannah Brigida Infantado

Tom Junod, B.A.’80

Reconnecting with Alma Mater

By Paul Grondahl, M.A.’84

Acclaimed journalist Tom Junod had not set foot on the University at Albany campus since his graduation 35 years earlier, but a remarkable transformation took place when he returned to his alma mater last September at the invitation of the New York State Writers Institute. He led a writing seminar; met with students; and read “The Falling Man,” his celebrated Esquire magazine article about the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, at the State Museum as part of a 9/11 commemorative program. Nothing prepared the prodigal writer for the depth of emotion that struck him.

“It felt like a return, a homecoming and all those really wonderful feelings. I’m not exaggerating when I say my visit there was a high point of my writing career,” said Junod (pronounced  Juh-NO), who lives in Marietta, Ga. He is a two-time winner of the prestigious National Magazine Award, for which he has been nominated a record 11 times.

Junod returned again April 16 to accept the Excellence in Arts & Letters Award from the Alumni Association during a gala at the Albany Country Club. “It feels great to receive that honor,” he said. “It’s wonderful. I couldn’t be happier.”

Junod saw a lot of his younger self reflected in the students he met in writing classes. “They were smart and underdogs and fighters just looking for a chance,” he said. “I realized by talking with them that the underdog role was part of my lineage, too.”

Junod reconnected with a former professor, Judith Barlow, and met a literary idol, Writers Institute Founder and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy. “Bill and I walked around Albany, which felt like I was touring heaven with St. Michael,” Junod said. “Bill had a story for every building and street corner. We also talked about the struggles of being a writer. It’s not an easy thing to write a great book, even for Bill Kennedy. It reminded me your heroes don’t get to be heroes because it came easy to them.”

Writing success did not come easily to Junod. The only journalism course he ever took was Fred LeBrun’s Journalism 101 his senior year. He earned his way into the big leagues of journalism through a combination of grit, drive, determination and a few lucky breaks. His luckiest break was falling in love with his future wife, Janet Junod ’79, whom he met at SUNY Oneonta. Smitten, he transferred along with her to UAlbany his junior year.

Junod grew up in Wantagh, Nassau County. His father, a traveling salesman, sold women’s purses. Junod did not have a clear career path and tried economics and psychology majors before he found his passion in English. He began reading Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and leading practitioners of The New Journalism. His English professors, particularly Barlow and Eugene Mirabelli, encouraged Junod’s enthusiasm for writing and his unorthodox essays. He graduated magna cum laude, published a few pieces in literary journals and met with many rejections when he applied for editorial jobs in New York City. He ended up a traveling handbag salesman like his father and got held up at gunpoint in a Los Angeles hotel room. The experience rattled Junod so badly he quit the business. He found a job writing articles for what he called “a third-rate trade magazine.” 

He refused to give up, kept writing stories and eventually broke into the big-time with articles in Sports Illustrated, Life and GQ. Junod became a protégé of GQ editor David Granger, who brought Junod along when he became editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine in 1997. Granger recently stepped down at Esquire, where Junod gained fame and considerable notoriety for deeply personal essays and celebrity profiles of Michael Stipe, Kevin Spacey, Nicole Kidman, Mister Rogers and many others. “David changed my life, and for 23 years he was my primary and ideal and reader,” Junod said. “We went through a lot together. David never lost that faith in the underlying sound of my writing.”

Along the way, the underdog from Wantagh has never stopped fighting. 


Next: Susan Galandiuk, M.D., B.S.'76