Spotlights

Wallace Hannum comments about Gerry Unks

Photo of Gerry Unks

Gerry Unks

Honoring Unks,
helping students

The School of Education has established the Gerald Unks Graduate Student Development Fund to honor Unks’s work and to assist graduate students. The fund will provide support for graduate students to help them travel to conduct research or to attend scholarly meetings.

To make a gift to the fund, go here.

More about Gerry Unks

Wallace “Wally” Hannum retired from the School of Education faculty in 2008, after teaching at Carolina since 1979. He has dinner with Gerry Unks most Wednesday nights at Pepper’s Pizza on Franklin Street.

I remember back over three decades ago when I came to join the faculty in the School of Education at UNC trying to learn my way around the building so I could find my office, the classroom where I was to teach, and the restrooms. I had learned to recognize the dean and department chair as well as a few faculty members who were on the selection committee and a couple who were teaching in the same area in which I was to teach. One day, a couple of our graduate students were helping point out some of the faculty members to me as we were walking around the hallways of Peabody. Normally we didn’t break our stride as one would point to a person down the hall or standing in front of a classroom and say something to the effect that the person is professor so-in-so who teaches curriculum, social foundations, statistics, administration or whatever. In the process I was learning my way around Peabody Hall as well as learning the names of my new colleagues.

At one intersection of two hallways the students walking with me came to a sudden, immediate stop quite unexpectedly as we had been walking steadily until this point. At first I thought that maybe they were unsure which hallway to take, but then one turned to me nodding towards a professorial looking man walking down one of the halls. “That” he said while now standing at a complete stop, “is Professor Unks. He is the best professor on campus.” I could hear his emphasis on the word “best.” 

I didn’t get to meet Gerry Unks that day because he was scurrying into a class filled with more students than I had ever seen in a Peabody Hall classroom that day or in the three decades that would follow. Of course, I thought this makes some sense – he is the best professor at UNC. These students seemed quite certain about that.

More than twenty years later I would be at a UNC basketball game in the Smith Center, the Dean Dome as many call it, watching a basketball game with the same Professor Unks. During the halftime festivities that night I saw the UNC chancellor standing at mid-court with a handful of UNC’s professors. He introduced Professor Unks to the crowd of 22,000 people as one of UNC’s best professors who had just won another university-wide teaching award.

Indeed, he is the best.

Being a professor
The first time I saw Professor Unks he looked like he had been dressed by the person who prepares mannequins for the windows of Brooks Brothers stores. It wasn’t until years later that I would learn during one of many dinners with Professor Unks that he did dress for class often in a Brooks Brothers’ suit because he thought it was important to show respect for his students and to the subject matter he sought to teach. To do less was to be ill prepared to carry out the commitment the University has made to the citizens of our fine state: Send us your young men and women and we will equip and prepare them for the life of an educated person.     

Having recently completed 40-plus years as a faculty member I realize we all recognize those few professors who were simply better than the rest of us. They would be the gold medal winners if this were an Olympic sport. For the most part, I think we attribute their exceptional success at something all of us were trying to do well to some special talent they had inherited or a special “gift” that some randomness of genetics sent their way, but not our way. It wasn’t until years later that I began to realize how very hard Carolina’s best professor worked at being a professor. There may have been some gifts much like a major league baseball player has some gifts, but like great athletes this gift is supplemented by consistent, dedicated hard work focused on getting better.

Being the best means working hard on perfecting your craft and doing anything you can do to get a small edge, even wearing a Brooks Brothers suit to show your respect for your students and your subject matter. But I did not know this that day early in my time in Peabody Hall. I only knew that it was clear to the students helping me find my way around that this professor, Dr. Unks, was exceptional – the best, they said.

In the weeks and months that followed I found my way around Peabody Hall and the UNC campus. I became acquainted with all the School of Education professors and a good number of professors elsewhere on campus. I began teaching classes as best I could while enjoying my interaction with graduate students and colleagues. I became immersed in the study of teaching and learning, as these subjects fascinated me. They still do.

Moments in Pepper’s
Wally Hannum and Gerry Unks at Pepper's Pizza
Late one afternoon about 20 years ago as I was walking up to Franklin Street to get a quick dinner before an evening class I found myself walking with Gerry Unks who, like me, was also getting a meal before class. We wandered into Pepper’s Pizza together that afternoon and have been doing so on a regular, usually weekly, basis since then. I can’t begin to count the dinners and conversations Gerry and I have had and continue to have at Pepper’s Pizza. We have “our table” at Pepper’s designated by the staff more than by us, but it is where we sit.

Two weeks ago I arrived a few minutes early for dinner with Gerry. The person who was seating people smiled and said, “Two at your usual table?” as he walked ahead of me back towards our table. I was moving slowly like the old man I have become when I noticed somebody was sitting at that table. By the time I had noticed this, the staff person had gotten the person dining at that table – “our” table – up and was moving her to another table. Both of them had their hands filled with her plate, her drink, her silverware, her napkin, her coat, and her backpack as they were moving all of this to a different table.

When I saw what was happening I indicated we would not mind sitting at another table. “No,” said the Pepper’s employee. “This is your table.” I apologized to the person being moved in mid-meal, but she seemed to understand.

Then, as Gerry was walking in, she smiled and said, “Hello, Professor Unks.”

During two decades of dinners at Pepper’s many people have stopped by our table to greet Gerry. All had some story that they were eager to tell him usually about something from his class, from a summer in London with him, or from some interaction with Gerry going back many years. Current students would bring their friends over to meet Professor Unks.

 A steady flow of former students would drop by, especially on evenings that UNC had a home basketball game, to mention when they took a course from Gerry five, ten, 20 and in some cases 30 years ago. To my amazement Gerry would not only remember them but recall their hometown and ask if they were back there, or he would remember their parents and ask about them, or he would remember their job and ask about it.

I remember several times when a student or former student would drop by as we were eating and Gerry would mention having had their mother or father in his class some years earlier. This is when I began to understand the tradition that UNC represents. This is when I began to understand the impact one truly outstanding faculty member can have on his students.

I can’t tell you how many former students brought their children by to meet Gerry. They always seemed most pleased to introduce their children to Gerry. One evening a woman probably in her late 40s came by our table with a friend behind her. “Excuse me, but aren’t you Dr. Unks?” she asked. When Gerry acknowledged this she indicated that she had not met him but that her husband had taken a class from him at Carolina 20 years ago and still talks about him and about that class. She introduced her friend to Gerry and explained to her friend that he was the person her husband was talking about when he told about taking that course at UNC that changed him.

You would have thought the woman had just met royalty! She was as happy as a little girl who had just gotten a pony for Christmas! Before leaving she got a Pepper’s placemat and asked Gerry if he would autograph it for her husband. Her last words were, “My husband is going to be so excited I saw you!”

Teaching is engaging
Most teaching fades away in time. I learned from my dinners at Pepper’s with Gerry that exceptional teaching remains fresh forever. When you impact someone’s life as a few outstanding professors do it is never forgotten; it never fades.

I learned a lot more during dinners with Gerry. We talk about education, of course, but also about history and politics. Gerry began his career teaching high school social studies and continues to be fascinated by our history and our politics. We also talk about travel, teaching, economics, the role of sports, the place of the university in modern society, theater and on occasion petty politics and gossip.

From Gerry I have come to see the complexities of teaching and to better understand the true meaning of teaching. More than ever I began to understand the importance of a university education not only to the recipients but also to their families and to the state of North Carolina.

Earlier this year Gerry mentioned that he had come from the library walking across campus to get to Franklin Street and our table at Pepper’s. I can’t remember if it was a cold day or a rainy one, but Gerry mentioned that he cut through several buildings on his trip across campus that afternoon. He said he paused to look into each classroom that was in session and reported that in most cases, I believe he actually said in all cases, he found a faculty member standing in the front of the room turned away from the students looking at a screen on which Power Point slides were being projected while reading the words on the screen verbatim to his or her students.

“What,” Gerry wondered over dinner that night, “has teaching become?”

He acknowledged that many were enthused about the impact of technology on teaching, but he deplored such meaningless waste of students’ time and money “covering” content. Teaching, he explained, is not covering content; it is not reading from a screen that which students are perfectly capable of reading on their own. Teaching is engaging students in thought and conversation about things that matter and deepening their knowledge in the process. This is what Gerry Unks has spent the past 40 years doing in Peabody Hall. Students know and appreciate this difference.    

Teaching as performance
Gerry has always had an interest in theater. He attends performances of plays regularly and has appeared in plays himself. From Gerry I have learned to understand some of the similarities between the performing arts and teaching. Actors have a way of gaining and holding our attention. They act out parts and tell stories on stage that captivate and inform us, stories that we remember. While on stage they communicate very clearly with their whole being.

I dare say that they educate us because they enable us to learn things we did not know or see things in a different light. There are things that happen in theater, like an actor’s timing or his voice control, that influence his effectiveness in holding our attention and communicating with us while on stage.

To Gerry teaching is also a performing art that can benefit from use of these techniques. More importantly, the aims of education are much more critical to society than the aims of entertainment. I dare say Gerry’s interest in theater arises at least in part from his desire to be a better teacher -- to be better able to stand in front of a group of students, gain and hold their attention, and focus their thoughts on the topic at hand.

He is as captivating as a skilled performer on stage because like skilled actors he works at the craft. Being well prepared and well rehearsed makes it look easy, almost casual as in an off-the-cuff remark in a play. A simple aside seems to happen on the spur of the moment yet it has been practiced until it looks as natural and easy as when Jack Nicklaus hit a golf ball or YoYo Ma played the cello. Unks works hard at teaching until it looks easy.

Some colleagues, perhaps just a few, seem to think that because students enjoy Professor Unks’ classes so much he must be entertaining them, not really educating them. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

His students rate his classes highly and rush to get enrolled in them because they are so good, not because they are so easy. Most of us can’t teach as well as Gerry, nowhere close to as well. So some offer the excuse that he must be easy. They can’t fathom someone that much better at teaching. After all, we are all teachers.

Yet Gerry Unks is that much better. A quick look at his grade distribution or a review of his examinations demonstrates that his classes are not easy. As our students told me during one of my first days on campus and as I heard our Chancellor exclaim from center court at a basketball game, Gerry Unks is our best teacher!

Going to London
Many will recall that for many years, probably 30 or so, Dr. Unks would take a group of UNC undergraduates over to London for a summer of coursework and study. In many cases, especially early on, the flight to London would have been the first time some of the students had flown on an airplane. It was the first trip out of the state for many students.

Gerry took students to London for many educational reasons, not just to get to see London. Fundamentally it was a way for students to understand America better. He was, after all, a social studies teacher. They would learn more about our history and culture by understanding British history and being immersed in their culture.

They would learn that the world is considerably larger than North Carolina, much larger than even the whole United States. They would see and live with some of the similarities and differences between here and there including the food, the currency, the heroes, the history, the ages of the two nations, and even the funny way the British drive on the wrong side of the road.

Off campus, away from home and on the other side of the world, they were learning how to take care of themselves and how to take care of others. They were seeing how things were elsewhere and why they were this way while understanding more about how things are here and why. They were getting an education from Gerry Unks.

Taking teaching seriously
When a sportswriter once asked Joe DiMaggio, the New York Yankees’ great centerfielder, why he always played each inning of each game so hard regardless of the score he replied, "There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time, I owe him my best."

Gerry Unks gave his best with each lecture to each class for 45 years. He took his teaching very seriously and worked at it very hard because there would be a new kid there in each class, and he felt he owed that person and all other students his very best every time.

Perhaps there is no more apt characterization of Gerry Unks than what Chaucer said in the Canterbury Tales of a clerk who had studied philosophy and loved books and reading, “And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”

Such is Gerry Unks.

Without question he is among a handful of UNC’s best professors. Professor Unks had a long and distinguished career at UNC teaching large classes of students. During his time at Carolina he has taught approximately 24,000 students. He may well have taught more UNC students than any other UNC professor ever! His influence has endured for several generations of UNC students and undoubtedly will continue.

I am honored to share a table with him at Peppers.