20 January 1939 – 6 June 2020
Len Unterberger was recently described by a friend as “a real tour de force of a human being, a true friend, mentor, supporter and an altogether positive force on my life. He had quick wit, deep insights, a sense of humour and critical sociopolitical analyses on topics far and wide.” He was also a lover of cats, books, classical music, good coffee, international travel and the New York Times Sunday edition. He loved interesting words too, and once told a younger cousin that he had read an entire dictionary. For those who knew Len, that was utterly believable.
Len was born on Friday, 20 January 1939 in the city of Wilkes-Barre, at the centre of the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. In that year, far away in Eastern Europe the dark, ominous clouds of war were rising and only six months later Poland was invaded. But these events must have seemed remote in the relative calm of Wilkes-Barre where as an only child, Len spent his early years with his father Louis Unterberger and mother Cecil Smith Unterberger.
As a young adult, Len studied at Amherst College in Massachusetts and then at Antioch University before finally moving to the University of Chicago for graduate school. Len often related how he never completed his PhD thesis at Chicago because of unfortunate ideological differences with the review team. “Classic Len,” his son Lorin later commented.
However, it didn’t prevent a brilliant career in psychology and family counseling. Len became profoundly knowledgeable in the theory and practice of family therapy and originally worked for a therapy agency at Hyde Park in Chicago, a vibrant community of student hangouts, restaurants, shops and tree-lined streets. As a successful psychotherapist, Len specialized in youth problems and families at risk. He often gave training sessions for up to two hundred eager participants. It was here at Hyde Park that Len met another counselor named Rosalind (Roz) Larsen, who later became his wife.
They had two children, Ruth and Lorin. Recently Roz recalled, “I often brought Lorin as an infant to Len’s training sessions and I felt proud of Len for his extensive training talent. Len loved social gatherings and routinely invited people to his home to cook for them. He willingly shared his extensive knowledge with everyone and was deeply appreciated for it.”
Roz was especially pleased when they moved to the smaller community of Oak Park, a few miles west of Chicago. Oak Park was the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway and the home of architect Frank Lloyd Wright where some of his earliest buildings were designed. These cultural connections were not lost on Len, who passionately loved the history and architecture of Oak Park. He and Roz remained there for thirty years where Len further developed his skills in family counseling.
Later, Len bought a farm in the town of Oregon, a small community nestling in the Rock River Valley. For just over a decade, Len worked the farm with his son Lorin. Although the farm kept them busy, Len’s family was never far from his mind. His cousin Paul Winestock recalls, “Len always made a fantastic effort to come to the important celebrations and markers of life such as Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. Over the decades, I watched Len find moments to spend with many of our younger relatives. He would ask about their lives; he would listen and if asked, he would offer advice. He seemed to relate to them, even when the age difference got to be sixty years. At every one of these family gatherings, he made a positive impact.”
Coby Bergman is Len’s third cousin and he visited Len in Thailand. “It wasn’t until I was graduating from university,” he wrote, “that I finally got to spend quality time with Len as an adult. He hosted me in Pattaya and in doing so, role-modeled what it means to live in the present and prioritize joy. When I fell ill, he helped me find a quality hospital and flew to Chiang Mai to make sure I knew that I wasn’t alone.”
Few people could match Len’s free spirit, sharp mind and knowledge of international affairs. In Thailand, he became an influential and much-respected member of the ex-pat community. He also devoted much of his time to another passion: classical music. Len became closely involved with the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra and for over fifteen years was a valued supporter of both the Orchestra and Mahidol College of Music. He attended most of the TPO concerts, travelled with the orchestra on several international tours and organized numerous outreach concerts. And although his Asian travels were extensive, Len always made regular visits to family members in America and Canada.
For fifteen years, Len was the Chairman of the charity TAKE CARE!! It saved many lives by distributing hundreds of thousands of safe-sex packs to venues in Pattaya. Len was also a member of the Management Group of Ben’s Theater, where he played a key role encouraging professional musicians to give concerts in Pattaya.
An ex-pat friend recently wrote, “Len’s lust for life and passion for beauty, deep well-spring of love and care for others, kept life ever-interesting, grounded and filled with a joy that helps me to remember what life is about. I feel so lucky he was a part of mine.”
And a few days ago, Michele Fee Smith, one of Len’s second cousins reflected, “Len’s memory brings quiet smiles and a deeply-felt bond. He was someone who reminded us to appreciate life as you live it.”
Colin Kaye would like to thank Lorin Bridger and Paul Winestock for their invaluable assistance in compiling this article.