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Robert Morris Sunley     

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Social Worker





Eakins Press / Leslie Katz

Serving the Unemployed

Black Mountain Memoirs: The Early Years



In his freshman year at Oberlin College, Robert "Bob" Sunley declared a triple major, a feat previously not accomplished at Oberlin. He soon realized that what he really wanted was a different kind of educational experience. When he came upon Louis Adamic’s "Education on a Mountain" in Harper’s in April 1936, he quickly paid a weeklong visit to Black Mountain and left convinced that this was the right school for him. The next task was to convince his conservative parents in Oak Park, Illinois that they should let him attend.

At Black Mountain Sunley took a general curriculum including literature, writing and music. He also took part in drama productions and other activities. He was elected Student Moderator and as such was a member of the Board of Fellows at a chaotic time in the college’s history. There was the suicide of a fellow student, and, more devastating, the conflict that led to the resignation of John Andrew Rice, a college founder. Sunley felt that these experiences were a valuable part of his educational experience. Heeding the advice of the faculty that Black Mountain no longer had much to interest him –he had decided to stop taking classes –, Sunley moved to New York City.

In New York, Sunley took odd jobs and worked at times in Boston for Porter Sargent, father of a Black Mountain student and publisher of a prestigious guide to private schools. He then returned to Chicago to work with his father who managed pension and profit-sharing plans and who ished a series of independent newsletters on international events. He served in the army during World War II, mostly in an intelligence office in an Arkansas camp. He also studied Japanese at the University of Michigan.

After the war Sunley returned to New York where he worked as an editor at Prentice-Hall and then as co-editor of Critique, a short-lived monthly journal for art criticism and reviews. He and Leslie Katz, also a Black Mountain student, formed a small press Touchstone Press which produced low-cost portfolios of art reproductions for museums and bookstores. He recalls that though the effort failed financially it was a "succes d’estime."

Sunley enrolled at the New School of Social Research in New York for his B.A. degree and t Adelphi University on Long Island for his Master’s degree in social work. He worked in several psychiatric clinics in New York and Long Island as a therapist and chief social worker and also maintained a private practice in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis after further training. He was Associate Director at Family Service Association of Nassau County, where he designed and directed a number of innovative human service programs. Several of these have been adopted nationally, including the Parent Child Home Program to increase the I.Q. of disadvantaged two and three year olds in poor families. The program is now funded statewide in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, and in other locations. He taught at universities, was a consultant, and wrote training manuals and grant proposals. He is author of articles and papers on social services. He also served on national and local boards and committees.

In his retirement Sunley has written two books – Advocating Today and Serving the Unemployed. A third book, Principles and Methods of Advocacy is being circulated to publishers. He had two exhibitions of his photographs on Long Island and is editor of a collection of essays (being published on this website) by former Black Mountain students.

Sunley married Edith Bjornson Surrey, who trained at Bank Street College, now divorced. They had two daughters, Madeline who is an artist and Christina, a writer.

Sunley lives on Long Island, in New York City and in Woodstock, New York.


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