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Saying Goodbye After Four Decades

John and Darlene Unrue have taught thousands of students, overseen scores of master's theses, and helped guide dozens of doctoral students working on dissertations. Before retiring they agreed to spend some time talking about their lives, their careers, and what lies ahead.
People  |  Jun 11, 2014  |  By Diane Russell
English professors John and Darlene Unrue. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

When English professors John and Darlene Unrue leave this summer, with them goes 86 years of teaching and mentoring experience.

That's more than four decades each of watching the UNLV campus grow from fewer than 5,700 students to more than 27,000. And, it's more than four decades of adapting -- to changes in the student population (now older and more diverse), to new administrations (nine presidents, from Roman Zorn to Donald Snyder), and to changes in technology (from carbon paper to cloud computing).

As they prepare to adapt again, this time to a life of retirement -- or at least semi-retirement -- they shared their future plans, their lives, and their time at UNLV with us.

How long have you been married?

John: We celebrated our 54th anniversary in April. Our anniversary is the same day as the anniversaries of Lincoln's assassination and the sinking of the Titanic.

How did you meet?

Darlene: My cousin introduced us at a movie theater in Huntington, West Virginia, on my birthday. I went home that night and told my father, who was crazy about baseball, "I'm going to marry a baseball player."

John: I injured my arm, so that put an end to baseball. Somewhere I still have the letter from the Pittsburgh Pirates saying I had been highly recommended to them.

What brought you to UNLV?

John: It was 1969. We were both about to finish our Ph.D.s at Ohio State. We went to a meeting of the Modern Language Association in Denver -- the furthest west either of us had been.

Darlene: When we got home, the phone was ringing as we walked into our house in Columbus. It was UNLV, and they were offering him the job. UNLV wasn't at the top of my list, but it wasn't at the bottom either.

John: I was like all young people. I was desperate for a job, so I thought I had better take it.

Tell us about your trip west and your first impressions of Las Vegas.

John: For us it was kind of a replay of the Grapes of Wrath. We felt like the Joads as we packed everything into our station wagon.

When we crossed the dam in the middle of the night, we both said, "This is a lovely place -- and it's green." We didn't realize we were in Boulder City, not Las Vegas. We kept driving and ended up on Fremont Street. We checked into the first motel we saw.

When we got up the next day and looked at the floor, we wouldn't put the children (son Greg, 8, and daughter Jane, 3) down because it was so bad. I looked out the window and spotted an adult bookstore and saw how rundown things were. At that point we wondered if we could even stay in this place.

Darlene: John said, "I'm going to go find campus, but I really don't think we can stay here." And I was thinking that we were going to get back in the station wagon, head back to Columbus, and hope that one of the other jobs came through. So the children and I sat on the bed and waited.

But then John called from campus, saying, "I'm in the English department and the chairman (Arlen Collier) has left the keys to his house for us to use while he is on vacation. It's a lovely home in a residential neighborhood and it's going to be fine. We can stay."

The UNLV campus was mainly desert when they arrived in 1970 -- desert broken up by the occasional building. One of those, today known as the Westfall Building, housed the English and foreign language departments. Then it was called the Interim Office Building. As time went on and no new office building was constructed, faculty wags began referring to it as "The Permanent Interim Office Building."

Soon the Unrues settled into a rented house -- the house where son Greg brought home an enormous lizard he had found in the desert and proceeded to lose it in the house. The family was up half the night hunting for it because Darlene refused to go to bed with the reptile on the loose. John began teaching, while Darlene finished her dissertation and taught part time at UNLV. Then in 1972 there was a sudden retirement in the English department and Darlene was hired on a full-time basis.

Darlene: In those early years we had to put up with a lot of comments about UNLV. "I didn't know there was a university in Las Vegas. Do they really have serious scholars there?"

John: We certainly had fewer students then, but we had some extraordinarily brilliant young people in our classes.

Those first two years were banner hiring years. The people hired were good scholars who became good friends. And I remember that I was making a good salary. They had asked me to head the composition program as well as teach medieval studies. I was paid $11,000 a year.

How did the perception among your peers in other places change?

Darlene: It really changed in the late 80s. The person who changed that perception was (President) Bob Maxson. He had such a way about him. Positive reinforcement worked. People started feeling better about themselves. People started achieving some academic prestige and we were taken seriously.

John: And we started to add the Ph.D. programs. When I was provost, President Maxson gave me the opportunity to encourage programs and to participate in the planning and implementation of them. We saw the first 10 Ph.D. programs and many master's programs. Being able to be on the ground floor of the development of a university is about as great an opportunity as anybody could ever have.

Also, we received the supercomputer, which brought a lot of national attention to UNLV.

Talk about other changes you have seen at UNLV over the years.

Darlene: The students are much more diverse these days, and that's a good thing. Today I may have a class with only a few Caucasians. It was rare to have students who weren't Caucasian in those early years.

John: Also, we have so many more international students. We have gotten to the point where the university doesn't just reach out to the area, we reach out to the world.

And, the students have gotten older. I have had senior citizens in my literature classes who actively participate in discussions. That really is wonderful when you hear the exchanges they have with much younger students.

What challenges do you see UNLV facing today?

Darlene: One challenge is to continue to attract good new faculty and to make it easy for them to be productive scholars -- and not encourage them to spend a disproportionate amount of time doing service. I found it very difficult in the last few years to do my research and writing because there was so much administrative work to take care of.

John: Obviously there is a greater need for universities to raise money today. I think there is a danger for universities to see the panacea for this in something called "the corporate model."

Universities have to be financially responsible, but I think there is a need to avoid letting the corporate model dictate and then suddenly have the corporate language and the corporate values overshadowing the academy in such a way it becomes a bureaucratic quagmire.

Tell us about your plans for retirement

Darlene: Although we both enjoyed teaching, I think we are looking forward to spending more time on our research and writing without the demands of being in the classroom.

John: This fall we will be in Europe where Darlene (the first member of UNLV's English faculty to be named a Distinguished Professor) will deliver a talk about Katherine Ann Porter at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. (Darlene is considered one of the world's leading experts on the Ship of Fools author.)

Darlene: We may also be in northern Italy where John can do more research on Ezra Pound. (John's focus has changed over the years from medieval to more modern times. His expertise on J.D. Salinger, for instance, was sought for the documentary film Salinger.)

We also plan to spend more time with our family. (Daughter Jane, a writer, lives in Boston where she teaches rhetoric at Harvard and works with the Scholars at Risk program. The Unrues' granddaughters, Paulina, 7, and Daria, 5, the children of their late son Greg, live in California.) We visit Jane in Boston regularly and she would like us to move there. But we've been spoiled by the warm, dry weather in Las Vegas.

John: We recently celebrated Paulina's birthday at Disneyland. That felt as if we had gone full circle since Disneyland was the first trip we made with our children after arriving in Las Vegas.

We have no plans to move now. For the time being home IS Nevada.