Metro Louisville flags are flying at half staff atop Old City Hall and outside Metro Hall in honor of the late George Unseld, who died Thursday after a fall in his Metro Council office. Unseld was a towering figure long before his 11 years as an alderman and Council member.
"He was a guy who didn't say much, but when he spoke people listened and they listened carefully," said Mayor Jerry Abramson, who knew Unseld for fifty years. Abramson was three years behind Unseld at Seneca High School.
Unseld's soft spoken leadership is evident in the motto next to his Seneca HIgh 1961 senior yearbook photo, "Quietly he makes his way among the great, achieving his goal."
The six foot seven Unseld was an all-state basketball center. WHAS11 spoke with George's younger brother, Wes Unseld, the U of L basketball star and NBA Hall of Famer.
"He knew me before I knew him," the younger Unseld said, "And I've always looked up to him. He was the oldest boy in the family and so we all just sort of wanted to be like him in some way."
Wes says his own basketball path was blazed by watching George being recruited and then starring at Kansas University, where George led the Jayhawks in scoring for two seasons.
"I watched it. I learned from it, thank goodness," Wes said, speaking by phone from the Unseld School in Baltimore, "And I always had him to draw back on in case I needed to learn more or didn't understand something that I had learned."
Yet. it was Wes, a reporter suggested, who became the most famous of the Unseld's.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that," countered Wes, who was voted one of the top fifty players in NBA history, "but it depends on what category you're talking about. I happened to play basketball for a living for a number of years but a lot of my brothers and sisters, they were teachers and did a lot of other things that if you ask in that community, they would tell you, they are the most famous Unselds."
While Wes went on to NBA glory, George became a basketball coach and educator at their alma mater, Seneca High. It was a critical time as busing began in the early 1970's.
"As the school systems merged, the city and the county joined together which was as I was going through high school," recalled Seneca principal Mary Greenlee, "(Unseld) was instrumental in making sure all students and all staff felt that they were part of the greater whole."
"He didn't distinguish between color," Greenlee continued, "George was somebody that we all knew accepted us for who we were as individuals. He looked beyond color."
Before Unseld moved to the Jefferson County School District's central office, he taught, coached basketball, and later served as the Human Relations Director at Seneca.
"As people were marching in the 70's at other schools, that didn't happen here," Greenlee said, "We all felt like we were part of one school. And George Unseld was a very big part of us feeling that this was our school and we needed to move forward."
It's a spirit that colleagues say characterized Unseld's public service, focusing on the needs of his Metro Council District of Old Louisville and surrounding neighborhoods, for social justice and on youth.
Facing health issues such as kidney dialysis, and the deaths of his wife and son in the past year, Unseld was undeterred in his council work.
"He couldn't be of service to people sitting home," Wes said, "He wasn't that kind of person."
Wes Unseld said though his brother did not "wear his religion on his sleeve," his deep faith allowed him to face the considerable challenges in recent years. Wes Unseld and Mayor Abramson were in the same graduating class at Seneca.
Abramson said the last time he saw Unseld was several weeks ago just before Abramson delivered his annual budget address. The mayor said Unseld gave him a "high five."
Abramson said Unseld's legacy is a commitment to youth and a passion to help young people.
"Wanting mentors and role models and giving kids a reason to believe that tomorrow would be better than yesterday," Abramson said, "That's to me the legacy when I think of him. And that smile."
Unseld's educator and conciliatory background was clear to his fellow council members who described Unseld's how he took heartfelt and convicted positions while respecting differing opinions.
"He also wanted to make sure that his colleagues understood the other side of an issue," said Councilwoman Madonna Flood, "not just the position we took, but understand the other side."
Wis there anything that people don't know about him that they should in general?
"Oh. I'm sure there's a lot you don't know," laughed Wes, "but I don't know whether I should tell you or not. Just remember he was a good guy."
Despite the tragedy, the work of Metro Government continues. People interested in filling the remaining two years of Unseld's Council term have seven days to apply. The Metro Council has 30 days to vote on a successor.
Visitation is Monday from 2pm to 4pm and 6pm to 8pm at Saint Stephen Baptist Church on South 15th street. A public memorial will be at the church at 11am, Tuesday.