This Unseld calls shots for
grade-schoolers

Sandra Crockett, THE BALTIMORE SUN - February 9, 1992

Her name usually appears in print followed by a parenthetical phrase, but Connie Unseld (wife of Wes) doesn't mind.

At 43, she's comfortable with the label of NBA wife. She doesn't mind being defined in terms of her athlete husband, the former basketball player who is now [1992] head coach for the Washington Bullets. In fact, "Her delight would be to sit next to me on the bench and be my assistant coach for the day," says Wes Unseld, 45. He jokes that he recaps games with his wife, "whether I want to or not."

But that's by no means the whole picture. Her husband may describe her "as a student of basketball," but education is really her forte.

Mrs. Unseld is the one who calls the shots at the state-accredited, independent Unselds' School, which serves 175 children from infants through fifth-graders and where the focus is on educating the "total" child.

"A lot of people put emphasis on the intellectual," Mrs. Unseld said. "That is important. But to me, the emphasis should be on the total development -- the physical, emotional, social and intellectual."

The school sits on the busy corner of Hilton Street and Frederick Avenue in a working-class southwest Baltimore neighborhood, next door to an auto repair shop and across the street from brick row houses. It is a secure building -- press a bell to be buzzed in -- but beyond the door are classrooms festooned with children's artwork, a media center with computers and a small oasis of a courtyard.

Except for the portrait of co-owner Mr. Unseld hanging conspicuously in the school's reception area, the building does not display any of the razzmatazz associated with big-name athletes.

Neither, for that matter, does Connie Unseld.

In the early days of their marriage, Connie Unseld knew she didn't want to build a life around being the wife of Wes. She would call him "in L.A., Denver or wherever and you're sitting at home. It could get very boring, and I said, 'This is not going to work.' "

She began teaching at a Baltimore public school and eventually returned to college to get a master's degree in education. Teaching, she said, is all she ever wanted to do.

"For me, it's almost like a mission," said the woman who speaks clearly and pointedly looks into the eyes of whomever she is speaking with. Just a little make-up graces her unlined freckled face, which is surrounded by shoulder-length curly black hair. "Yes, I get physically tired," she said. "But I never get bored."

Unselds' School opened its doors in 1978 as a day-care center. In 1983, it received state accreditation and "We started adding one from 1 year at a time," she said.

Opening the school was a big step for the former Constance Marie Martin, who was born in rural Morganfield, Ky., which had a population of about 6,500. She grew up the middle child in a family of five children. Her father was a Baptist minister and a public school principal.

It was an environment "Where everybody knew everybody" and "School was important to the whole community," she said.

The Unselds' School is a family affair. She is the school's director, and her father, Herschel Martin, 73, is the principal. Daughter Kimberly, 18, a freshman at Hood College, and son Wes Jr., 16, a Loyola High School junior and basketball player (who was one of the first graduates from the family's school), help out when they can.

"It is truly a school family," said Jodellano Statom, an administrator for the Maryland Department of Education, who met Connie Unseld about eight years ago when she went to observe the school. She has since become friends with the Unselds and often talks over educational issues with Mrs. Unseld.

"They work with the students just like they would work with their own children," Dr. Statom said. "Everyone is respected as an individual. Nurturing's important, too.”

The door to Mrs. Unseld's tiny office -- which is jammed with books, files, a computer and a copying machine, and is adorned with her and Wes' college degrees, numerous citations and schedules -- is always open. But she is seldom inside.

Instead, she is out monitoring classes and getting down on the floor to talk with the children, as she did on one recent day with 10 energetic 3-year-olds. It doesn't matter that she is conservatively dressed in a business suit -- down she goes.

"What song are you learning today?" she asks the children, consciously speaking to them in grammatically correct, whole sentences. She isn't the only one conservatively dressed. Although the school has no dress code, neatness is expected, and at least two of the boys in the pre-kindergarten class are wearing ties.

When not talking with students, Mrs. Unseld is planning education seminars for the parents, keeping the staff of about 30 updated on new trends -- and always there are plenty of shoelaces to bend down and tie.

Yes, she looks tired. But she perks up when talking passionately about education.

The basics such as reading, writing, math and science are important, she explained. "But so is nurturing, and caring and giving positive strokes." There are Cub Scout troops at the school, and sports are played on the campus of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. And yes, that includes a school basketball team.

Mrs. Unseld had the dream to start the school because she was appalled at how many children were turned off to education.

"I don't want to hear kids say that they hate school," she said, explaining why she started her school. "I wanted to see a new generation of kids who are happy."

The Unselds' School, which is not affiliated with a church, draws a predominately black student body and charges about $60 a week.

Mrs. Unseld's philosophy is to open up the world to students so they will "know what is out there." Classical music is sometimes piped through the speakers in the lunchroom, for example. "It's just a part of their environment," she said about the music. "They don't know they are not supposed to like it."

That's her point. Teach children about different cultures, music -- and, most importantly, teach them to think and not just regurgitate responses, she said. Make learning an enjoyable experience at an early age, and maybe, just maybe, children won't be so turned off later.

Deborah Tuck has been sending her daughter Ashlee, 7, to the school for the last four years. "I visited many schools when I was looking around, but she and her father seemed so sincere and devoted," said Mrs. Tuck, who lives in the Liberty Road corridor in northwest Baltimore County some distance away.

Connie Unseld admits she hasn't done much to publicize her school by using her widely known last name. That's not the point, she said. "I didn't really want to make a splash."

Fame might seem inevitable because of her name, but she's also earned it by being outspoken in other arenas.

In June, Mrs. Unseld risked the wrath of the governor during a raucous meeting of the University of Maryland Board Of Regents, which oversees the state university system. There, 13 of the 14 members present voted to uphold the governor's proposal to extend the work week.

Mrs. Unseld, a governor-appointed member who has served for three years, cast the sole dissenting vote. She had decided that making about 5,000 mostly female employees work 41/2 hours more a week for no extra pay was something she did not want to be part of. It was vintage Connie Unseld. She received a three-minute standing ovation from state employees at the meeting, and later, a few congratulatory letters.

"I don't think that anyone who knows me thought that was unusual," she said. "I understand the governor's plight. I'm sure he anguished over it," she said. But her heart said that supporting the governor in this instance was wrong.

"She always spoke her mind," said Wayne A. Cawley Jr., the recently retired Maryland Secretary of Agriculture who served on the Board of Regents for nearly 13 years. "That makes her a good person to be on the board."

When she isn't at her school or working with the board of regents, Mrs. Unseld is out educating the public about breast cancer. The NBA Wives Saves Lives organization raises funds, holds seminars and distributes information about breast cancer at games.

"We know that minority women die of cancer more than white women, and the NBA has a great minority following," she said.

Starting the national group was the idea of Irene Pollin, wife of Bullets owner Abe Pollin. "We work as partners," Mrs. Pollin said. "I pulled it together, and Connie is the one who made it happen. She's just been fabulous."

So how did Connie Unseld, who has always wanted a life in the education field, end up married to a professional athlete?

When Connie met Wes, they were students at the University of Louisville majoring in education. Wes was a junior and Connie was a freshman, living at home with her parents and frustrated because they would not let her go away to school.

He was popular; she was a self- described nerd. She's pretty sure what kept him interested was that she wasn't chasing him.

"He saw me as a breath of fresh air," she said, laughing. "I wasn't trying to bait him. He would say, 'I got to go practice,' and I would say, 'Good, I got to study.' "

She, in turn, was attracted to a man who had his priorities straight.

"His priority was to finish his college education in four years," she said. "He didn't want to be used as an athlete and then end up without a college education."

Wes Unseld now laughs loudly when asked what attracted him to her.

"I don't know what caught my eye," he said. "It was the whole picture, I guess."

He graduated from school two years ahead of her in 1968 and landed in Baltimore to play professional basketball for the Bullets. She thought the romance was over. "He had plenty of time to play the field," she said nonchalantly.

Her father's recollection is that she was not nonchalant at the time.

"I didn't know who he was, and I could have cared less," said Mr. Martin. "But I can remember when she was in her junior year, she came to me and told me that she wanted to get married. She knew that she wanted to be with him and that we would not have allowed their living together out of matrimony.

"But I just came down flat and said 'No!' "

The best thing she could do was to finish her education, he insisted.

"I remember saying, 'If he loves you, he will wait for you,' " said Mr. Martin. "She cried over that for a little bit, but she got over it. And sure enough, the week she got out of school, they announced their wedding plans."

The couple, married for 22 years, still lives in Catonsville. Mrs. Unseld doesn't feel as if she has changed much since moving here from Kentucky.

"I don't feel like a celebrity, and I'm not," she said. "I'm delighted I'm his wife. He's wonderful, but that's his life."

Wes Unseld former NBA Rookie of the Years, MVP, 5-time All Star, and NBA Champion (1978), spent his entire NBA career with the Baltimore/Capital/Washington Bullets. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988.

For any questions, please contact David Trotman :

415-298-8979

1519 O'farrell St. San Francisco, CA 94115