Hundreds of conversations and dozens of friendships in and around The University of Akron started this way during the last four years. Duncan Unternaher began his career at the university in 2012 as the guy who met everyone from all walks of life. He was on his way to a successful career, having found a niche for his personality in sales.
But that didn’t happen as planned. The headlines said that a University of Akron student had been stabbed by his roommate and died. Duncan was killed in his own apartment. One year prior, the headlines had been about Zak Husein, a student who was shot and killed in a robbery while working in his brother’s pizza shop. Most of us read these articles and feel bad for a life cut short and move on, never knowing much more of the story. Duncan and Zak were friends. They both had large, outgoing personalities. How their lives intertwine is an Akron kind of story.
From an early age, Duncan inherited his father’s ability to reach out to and attract others. He was the kid who met all of the other kids in class. Teachers in his native Newark, Ohio and professors here all knew him as the standout student who participated in class, talked—sometimes out of turn—and always let you know he was there. Whether little league or high school sports, Duncan could be counted on for both his skill and his spirit. He could get the team and the coaches involved.
From his early days at The University of Akron, Duncan was active and visible. He became president of South Residence Hall and joined Phi Delta Theta social fraternity. As he moved into his major in sales management he became active and an officer in both the sales professional fraternity, Pi Sigma Epsilon and the student chapter of the American Marketing Association. Throughout these years he worked on and organized events and fundraisers for charity, including packing meals to honor his friend Zak.
Zak was also outgoing and interactive with peers and professors alike. Everyone knew him as the guy asking and answering questions, often with just a twinkle of a joke. As students in the College of Business Administration at UA, it’s not surprising that he and Duncan met and became friends.
After Zak was killed, students organized a charitable food packing event with Stop Hunger Now in April 2016. Thirty thousand dried meals were packed and packaged and shipped to destinations in Swaziland. Duncan was there as a leader of his business fraternity and as Zak’s friend. It was an event that brought together over 500 people from a broad cross-section of the university and the greater Akron communities to bring some good out of tragedy. Zak was Muslim, Duncan was Christian. In both faith traditions doing good works to honor those who have passed on benefits those who are lost and comforts those left behind.
Nearly 1,000 people attended the Celebration of Life for Duncan that was held at Swasey Chapel of Denison University, near his family’s home and the church they attended. Family and friends heard stories of him reaching out to others, being the standout in class and on the team, being the kid in class to challenge the science teacher’s patience – but all the more loved for having done so. People were drawn to Duncan and drawn to each other because of him, because of the “inescapable gravity of his personality.” He was about to accept an internship that would lead to an early career job and was scheduled to graduate from UA in May 2017. His degree will be awarded posthumously.
We never know the effect we have on others. Duncan and Zak knew that they had many friends and were well liked. They don’t know the depth of love felt by those friends nor the ripple effects their lives had on their communities. Their friends and the university look to reprise the “good coming from tragedy” in the future. Let’s hope that works out.
Douglas “Dr. Doug” Hausknecht is Associate Professor of Marketing at The University of Akron.