May 7, 2021

Tony Gaskin '17

To the Stars ... and Beyond

A person holding two books.

by Jason Sebastian Russo

Every one of us embarks on a journey, whether we know it or not, and everyone’s journey has an arc. The wisest among us are cognizant of this, and the best of us use this wisdom to help others. SUNY Empire State College alumnus, Anthony “Mr. Tony” Gaskin ‘17, is using his talent and spirit to inspire people at a time when it is most critical — early childhood.

Tony’s own childhood was full of love and encouragement, something he is grateful for and something he cites as the beginning of his journey. He was a creator from the start, and thinks most of us are, whether we know it or not.

“I've been interested in the arts and letters my whole life,” he explains. “And to be honest, we all have a book or two in us, but most never get to write them.”

Tony parents encouraged him to explore and dream, but most of all, they encouraged him to be himself. His working-class parents were invested in his emotional wellbeing and gave him the values that infuse his work with a warmth and inclusivity that feel effortless. He says his book’s characters reflect a lived experience.

“I was never taught to hate someone based on race, sex, creed, or religion. My parents were welcoming to all, and they never spoke to me or my siblings in any other way, so I viewed the world in that way,” he said.

He also acknowledged that America has not yet caught up to his family’s worldview. He cited the last few years of political turmoil as evidence of the underlying inequities in our culture, and he is determined to address it.

“I am no longer settling for children’s books, visuals, or schools that are not inclusive and nurturing in their dialogue,” he said.

Tony’s worldview and work are shaped by something he calls the "ingredients of a life.” And he has lived his to its fullest.

“My personal story is long and complex — a life full of dramatic ups and downs, triumphs and epic disappointments,” Tony said. “I decided to take what I call ‘ingredients of a life’ and use them to create who I am now, a man built on life’s lessons.”

Prior to earning his degree, Tony’s life ingredients included many different business and career paths. For example, his natural gift with children resulted in a career as a professional nanny. He also opened a restaurant in New York City’s East Village, Mr. Tony’s Soul Kitchen, a business he ran entirely by himself. His interest in public policy even led him to the Columbia School of Public Health.

The thread that ties all of his paths together is the boldness and openness with which Tony pursued them. He was willing to do what it took to achieve success. That included heading to college to earn his degree. Tony said when an old friend suggested he look into SUNY Empire, everything “clicked into place.”

“SUNY Empire appealed to me because it advocated for adults and those of us who have lived a full life, yet want to grow and apply our life experiences toward a degree,” he explained. “SUNY Empire gives adults of all stripes an environment and a chance to find further growth in their personal and professional lives.”

Tony speaks in almost reverential tones about how SUNY Empire’s learning environment integrates into a student’s daily life.

“The wonderful thing about SUNY Empire is that they work with you, not against you in helping you reach your goals. They know they will be working with adults, many of whom are dealing with life challenges,” he says. “From the outset, they create a safe place for their student body to thrive.”

When asked who or what inspired him to reach the finish line, he is expansive.

“All of my ancestors, all the people who came before that were not allowed to dream or learn, and the millions of the enslaved people who died or were tortured. All of the people before me that were not considered human. My parents,” he said.

Tony’s ambition didn’t stop at earning a bachelor’s degree. His natural inclination is to keep pushing.

Enter the “Mr. Tony” adventure series. Tony gathered up all of his influences and inspiration and poured them into his first children’s book, Mr. Tony Explores Space. The book follows Mr. Tony and his friends as they encounter the mysteries of the skies.

“I had no money when I started this process, but I knew I needed an illustrator. I took an ad out in New York City’s top art and design schools. As expected, most needed more money than my budget would allow,” Tony recalled. “I finally came across an illustrator who was willing to work within my financial constraints. He was particularly good at improving on my suggestions of each scene in the book.”

Mr. Tony’s adventures center around a handful of children, each of whom have specific characteristics and goals. For example, Fatima is an Egyptian girl who lives in Cairo and manages a fruit stand with her brother Amir. In fact, all of Mr. Tony’s friends are the people we meet every day, but who aren’t always represented in mainstream children’s books.

For this reason, Mr. Tony Explores Space has received positive attention from parents and readers. The book’s Amazon comments are full of praise: “Simple, upbeat, exciting and so much fun to read!” one reader writes.

Learn more about Tony’s Young Academics Adventures, meet the characters, check in on upcoming adventures, and learn more about Mr. Tony’s mission.

This article was written by Jason Sebastian Russo, student intern in the college's Office of Communications and Marketing. He is a writer, composer, musician, and digital marketer based in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Hobart After Dark, Clay Literary and more. He’s recorded and toured with bands that include Mercury Rev, Kevin Devine, Hopewell, Pete International Airport, and Guiding Light, which releases a new album in 2021. He’s also working on a novel and is currently exploring forms that combine poetry, music, and technology, as well as scoring podcasts and films. Jason is an ESOP student earning his degree in cultural studies with a concentration in communications and media.