R. Wensell Grabarek, 100, died peacefully at his Durham home on Sunday, December 15, 2019. Wense was born to Albert and Elizabeth Grabarek in Luzerne, Pennsylvania on May 21, 1919.
Wense served as mayor of Durham from 1963-1971, a time of significant social and civic growth. He appreciated that Durham gave him the opportunity to lead the city in voluntary commercial desegregation prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He also valued the opportunity to promote the development of the Research Triangle Park by ensuring an adequate water supply from Durham.
Wense’s outstanding political service was matched by an equally exemplary professional career. True to his independent character, he worked for himself as a certified public accountant until his retirement at age 98. His integrity was without question, and his unwavering commitment to his clients was heartfelt.
He believed strongly in the transforming power of education. Together with his wife Marion, he established scholarships at ten academic institutions and gave his support to many more. His children knew that a request for a book would always be granted.
Wense had a long history of community involvement. His leadership positions included work with The Research Triangle Park Planning Commission, the Durham County Board of Health, the Board of Trustees of Watts Hospital, the Durham Chamber of Commerce, the North Carolina League of Municipalities, the Durham County March of Dimes, the Durham County Cancer Crusade, the Durham Kiwanis Club, Campbell University, Meredith College, and Watts Street Baptist Church. Honors recognizing his civic conscience included Kiwanian of the Year, the Benjamin Franklin University Distinguished Alumni Award, the Campbell University Presidential Medallion and Algernon Sydney Award, and the Rotary Club of Durham’s Community Service Award.
Wense loved to play. Until his dying day, neighborhood children sought his company. His interests included horseback riding, surf fishing, golfing, and piano playing. He was an avid fan of Duke basketball and attended games into his 100th year.
On September 2, 1944, Wense married Marion Pritchard Norris of Durham. She was the love of his life, and he often said that the key to his happiness was marrying her. He lost her on January 17, 2018. He is survived by his four children: Robert Wensell Grabarek Jr. (Mary Anne), Louise (Lisa) Norris Grabarek, John Carl Albert Grabarek, and David Harrison Grabarek. He leaves nine grandchildren with cherished memories of playing with Grandy: Julia Grabarek McGinnis (Shannen), Robert Wensell Grabarek III (Jon Douglas), Marion Norris Grabarek Miller (Eric), Helen Camp Matthews (Zack Arrington), William Camp Matthews III (Kristen), Kristin Elizabeth Grabarek (Jason Miller), John David Grabarek, Collin Blair Grabarek (Cloud Spurlock), and Emily Grabarek Cilliler (Serdar). He is also survived by seven great-grandchildren: Owen McGinnis, Jeremy McGinnis, Wesley Roper, Stella Miller, Lale Cilliler, Ata Cilliler, and Wilder Grabarek. Other survivors include his two sisters Wanda Ogurkis and Clara Kownacki, his sister-in-law Helen Grabarek, many nieces and nephews, and his devoted caregivers Sarah Spencer-Bey and Doreen Williams.
To honor his memory, Wense would want you to embrace each day as an opportunity to make someone else’s day better.
A visitation will be held on Sunday, December 22 from 4:00-6:00 p.m. at Hall Wynne (1113 W. Main St., Durham, NC). Interment will be at Maplewood Cemetery on Monday, December 23 at 1:00 p.m., followed by a 2:00 memorial service at Watts Street Baptist Church (800 Watts St., Durham, NC).
Wense was proud to have served in the United States Army during World War II, rising to the rank of captain. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of the Huertgen Forest. He was awarded three Battle Stars and a Bronze Star. In November of this year, he returned to Europe with three of his children to retrace his wartime journey. He wanted to honor the civilians who welcomed him, salute the soldiers who fell, and find a measure of peace in what he had witnessed. In this he succeeded. At the end of the trip, he told his children, “My life is now complete.”