2019 Community Service Award – Wense Grabarek

For many years our Club has made a Paul Harris Fellowship award to a citizen of Durham for contributions to the life and culture of the community.  For as long as I can remember the selection has been guided by Rotarian Dieter Mauch. The only hard and fast rule of the selection process is that it can’t be another Rotarian. The other members of the selection committee are President Todd Taylor, past President Brady Surles and Judge Craig Brown.

This year’s honoree is former mayor Wense Grabarek. Mr. Grabarek was nominated formally by Club members David Ross and Wade Gresham and received endorsements from Tom Bonfield, Robb Cadwallader and Jim Brame. Dieter noted that this was the first year that he could recall where we have received multiple nominations as well as multiple emails and phone calls in support of one candidate.

Mr. Grabarek was elected mayor in 1963 and served until 1971. When Dave Ross, who introduced the former mayor, shared that piece of information, I could hear the mental calculators at the adjoining tables trying to figure out how long that was before they were born.

Dave also mentioned, in jest…we think… that in his professional role as an accountant, he kept former Duke basketball coach and Rotarian Bucky Waters, out of jail.

This period in the 60’s was one of the most turbulent times in the civil rights movement. In fact, mass demonstrations were taking place right after his election. The new mayor stepped right in and promised to be everyone’s mayor and spoke at an integration rally at St Joseph’s AME Church.

There is a great write-up of those first days on a subdomain of the County website called And Justice For All that has in its Galleries a portrait of the mayor and several paragraphs about the events around his accomplishments.

One of them mentioned was the creation of the Durham Interim Committee that eased the community into the peaceful integration of restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, etc. In his talk to the Cub, the mayor mentioned two names of prominent segregationists that were eventually won over. One was C. P. Ellis, who was a Klan leader who became the subject along with Ann Atwater of the recent movie The Best of Enemies about the court ordered desegregation of Durham schools, which happened after Mayor Grabarek’s terms. The other was Harvey Rape, the owner of a popular restaurant on East Main Street. There are several pictures of the restaurant on the Open Durham website and a couple of paragraphs that describe how Rape “prayed on it” and his tearful call to Mayor Grabarek where he finally agreed to serve both blacks and whites… as long as they didn’t sit together in Harveys. Rape also served on the Interim Committee.

In a poignant moment, Mr. Grabarek noted that when he married is wife Marion, a Durham native, he knew that he would forever be in debt to the city. Marion Norris Grabarek passed away peacefully in their home in January of last year after 73 years of marriage.

Commenting on his role in the civil rights movement he said that “God gave us a plan and a conscience to meet the challenge.” He also mentioned the guidance provided by Matthew 7:12 “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

In case you’re wondering, Mr. Grabaret recently celebrated his 100th birthday. His recollections of those difficult days in our history when desegregation began in earnest, seems like ancient history but many in the club lived through it and many, like the mayor, where not just observers.  We’ve made progress, of course, but the recent revival of un-embarrassed white supremacy in our country tells us that we have a long way to go before everyone adopts that Golden Rule…and the Four Way Test…with no exceptions.

Concluding, Mr. Gabarek noted that in Durham “our diverse togetherness gave life to our soul.”


Submitted by Jay Zenner

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