‘A giant’: UNM professor, architect dies at 92

Early in his career, Don Schlegel envisioned a life as a world-celebrated architect.

Instead, he was celebrated as an educator, a mentor and a friend who influenced thousands of students, including now internationally renowned architect Antoine Predock, who called Schlegel “a giant.”

A former chairman of the University of New Mexico’s Department of Architecture, and later dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, Schlegel died early Feb. 10 at his Albuquerque home. He was 92.

“Don Schlegel was the foundation for the formation of the UNM School of Architecture and Planning,” said current dean Geraldine Forbes Isais. “His insight and vision drove the destiny of the School. His leadership not only helped guide the school and its programs forward, but also helped shape the profession and our faculty and students’ careers.”

Local architect and long-time friend Tina Reames said Schlegel taught her about architecture, the business of architecture, “and about life.”

He was her professor in two studios in graduate school, and later he became her mentor in the Young Architects Forum, a program of the American Institute of Architects.

“I was adopted into his family, basically. We went to Isotopes games together, Lobo basketball games and productions at Popejoy. He was just terrific.”

Predock, also a long-time friend, recalled meeting Schlegel in 1954, when Predock was an engineering student and Schlegel was teaching an engineering course in drawing.

Engineering didn’t fulfill Predock, but an aptitude test suggested architecture might.

“I didn’t even know what architecture was, didn’t have a clue about it, but I enrolled in the program and there he was. I was in an introductory design studio with him, and it was like a dream come true. It clicked, and I connected with him and all through my studies at UNM he was always there in the background, giving me advice and guidance.”

After four years in the program at UNM, Schlegel gave Predock some unexpected advice.

“He said to me, ‘We’ve taught you all we can here. You should go. You should leave and go to a school with a richer program.’ I never had any idea about doing that. In effect, he kicked me out and said, ‘You have to go somewhere where you can flower.’ ”

Predock subsequently attended Columbia University in New York for graduate school.

“But all that time he was my mentor. He was the guy who I respected and trusted. Architecture became my life and I wouldn’t have done it without him.”

Schlegel may not have gained national recognition as a designer, although “he was a very good designer,” Predock said, “but he stood out as a respected educator and touched so many … lives that way.”

Schlegel’s daughter, Marny Whiteaker, said her father once told her, “there was a point in his life that he knew he would not be a famous architect, which was his dream, so he took all his knowledge and his wisdom, all his energy, and turned it to teaching and became a dedicated professor of architecture. He knew that being a professor was really his calling.”

Nevertheless, her father loved being an architect, she said. He had his own firm for many years, and more recently continued working as an architect several days a week with the local firm of RMKM Architecture.

Don Schlegel was born in Pennsylvania and attended high school there. His undergraduate studies in architecture at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, were interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II and served in the Pacific theater. His assignments included draftsman, cartographer and carpenter foreman.

After being discharged from the Army, Schlegel completed his undergraduate degree, then graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, he studied under Buckminster Fuller, the internationally known architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor and futurist.

During a long career, architect Don Schlegel, left, had the opportunity to meet world famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, as seen in this photo from around 1956. (Courtesy of Antoine Predock)
During a long career, architect Don Schlegel, left, had the opportunity to meet world famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, as seen in this photo from around 1956. (Courtesy of Antoine Predock)

Over the years, Schlegel had the opportunity to meet architects Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M. Pei, sculptor Alexander Calder, and artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

In 1954, Schlegel and some friends were driving to California, where he had a job interview set up. “As they came through Tijeras Canyon and looked back at the Sandia Mountains at sunset, he said, ‘I’m staying here,’ ” Whiteaker said. “The next morning, he went to UNM and asked if they had a job.”

Schlegel and his first wife, Jean, were married for 20 years before divorcing. He and his second wife, Jackie Schlegel, were married for 38 years, until her death in 2008.

All four of Schlegel’s children were raised in Albuquerque, said Whiteaker, who recalled that the family home was filled with laughter.

“He was hilarious. He had a very dry sense of humor,” she said. “There was a lot of banter back and forth in our family and a lot of play on words, so all the children learned how to do that as well. So it was always fun to be in the presence of my dad because we laughed all the time.”

Son John Schlegel, a newspaper sports editor in Santa Rosa, Calif., said his father was able to strike a balance between the professional and the personal. “To me he really was able to cover all the bases as a professor at the university, running an architectural practice and being there as part of the family.”

It was also heartwarming, he said, “to see the amount of respect he got from New Mexico’s architectural community, and how he touched so many lives as a professor who brought students along in their formative years as they became architects, colleagues and friends.”

Schlegel is survived by his daughters, Robyn Schlegel and Marny Whiteaker, both of Albuquerque, sons Kip Schlegel of Bloomington, Ind., John Schlegel of Monte Rio, Calif., and eight grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

Details of a late-spring public memorial service will be announced.

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