Oregonian memorial article for architect DeNorval Unthank

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Oregonian memorial article for architect DeNorval Unthank

Postby Kevin » Wed Feb 29, 2012 11:05 pm

Oregonian memorial article for Eugene, Oregon architect DeNorval Unthank
http://www.archiplanet.org/wiki/DeNorva ... gon%2C_USA

His hand on her wrist was the eternal flame
Tuesday, November 14, 2000

He didn't have her at hello. Debbie Mohr doesn't remember hello. What she does remember is that DeNorval Unthank Jr. pulled out a cigarette and asked her for a light.

She was sitting across the table from him at the University of Oregon's Gerlinger Hall. Digging out her lighter, she struck it once, twice, three times without success. That was all the excuse Unthank needed to take gentle hold of her white wrist in his black hand, contact that quickly produced the necessary spark.

She could tell he was amused, even as he pulled away and said, "Cigarette lighters know when to act up, don't they?"

She walked away thinking, "Wow." The echo must have been playing in Unthank's head because he called her that night and asked her to the Beaux Arts masquerade ball. "You can go as salt," he told her, "and I can go as pepper."

That racial divide? Debbie and "De" laughed about it. They leapt across it each time their eyes met. They never looked back at the forbidding stares that shadowed them around campus.

Because this was the spring of 1951.

And it wasn't long after they began hanging out together at the College Side Inn and The Bird that the sweet sisters of Gamma Phi Beta suggested Debbie leave the sorority house.

When she was slow to take the hint, someone planted a 7-foot cross on the Gamma Phi lawn and set it ablaze.

And when Debbie and De finally married that July, four months after smoke got in their eyes, they were forced to sneak off to an Episcopal church in Vancouver, Wash., seeing as how the prohibition against interracial marriage was still coiled like a snake in Oregon law.

De Unthank Jr. died two weeks ago in Eugene at age 71, and The Oregonian's obituary properly focused on his 45-year career as an architect and the prominence of his father, DeNorval Unthank Sr., a Portland physician and a co-founder of the Urban League.

But the family name doesn't fully explain why this paper considered it front page news when Unthank married a white woman on a July day in 1951.

And if the two lovers were never noticeably slowed by the bigotry they encountered, that ugly passion -- and its proximity -- should still give us pause.

She was Debbie Burgess when they met, and Debbie Burgess in the Time magazine story that described how the sisters, the alumni and the housemother of Gamma Phi all warned her that dating a black man wasn't "the accepted thing."

Even though she'd grown up in the white enclaves of Milton-Freewater and The Dalles, Debbie shrugged off the advice. "It seemed incredible to me," she said, "that anyone would object to this fine young man. I didn't understand the wall of prejudice.

"We ran against it head on."

She always believed the burning cross -- the signature of the Ku Klux Klan -- was a fraternity prank, but it was enough to force her from the red-brick sorority house on Hilyard Street. "I can't say they kicked me out," she said. "I simply moved out. I was very uncomfortable."

She and De found a more accepting crowd in Eugene among the artists and architects, the bohemians and Beats. If Debbie's mother needed a little time to get comfortable with the marriage, the Unthanks were totally supportive.

"De's world to me was absolutely incredible," Debbie said. "That was the most important thing that ever happened to me. I found it a very warm, embracing community."

A refuge, you might say, from the sundown laws in Medford, the disgruntled attention on the coast and the threatening midnight phone calls.

They were married for 21 years, all told. They had three children -- Peter, Libby and Amy -- and a friendship that survived their 1972 divorce.

Remarried and still living in Eugene, Debbie said, "I still have the same feelings -- astonishment, rage and disbelief -- that people carry such hatred around. And I think the world has a long way to go on these interracial issues."

Which is why she feels such hope when she sees another seemingly color-blind couple together.

Hope . . . and De's fingers on her fluttering pulse.

This is posted here as a public service due to repeated problems linking to the article at the Oregonian web site:
http://www.oregonlive.com/special/serie ... in14.frame
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Kevin
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