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Arthur Unger

Dr. Arthur Unger, a longtime Bakersfield physician whose leadership of the Kern-Kaweah Chapter of the Sierra Club spanned three decades and encompassed issues involving endangered species, development, and water and air quality, died Saturday of congestive heart failure. He was 79.

Along with his wife, Lorraine, Unger served on just about every committee of the local chapter. From the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, when a lack of leadership threatened the its future, the Ungers stepped into the breach, said Joe Fontaine, former national president of the Sierra Club and a Bakersfield resident.

"They were the primary leaders for 10 years," he said.

Unger was a consensus builder in committees, Fontaine said, but also excelled in identifying key issues.

"He was like an early warning system," Fontaine said. "He would recognize the issues and get members mobilized."

Unger earned virtually every award the local chapter bestows. For years, he and his wife were the chapter's representatives to the national board of executives' meeting. Unger continued to attend chapter meetings until two weeks ago.

His love for the outdoors came from summers spent at camps in the Adirondacks of northwestern New York. As an asthmatic, he moved to Albuquerque after earning his medical degree from New York University Medical School in 1961 and finishing his residency.

By 1966, he'd moved to Bakersfield and was part of a family practice. A decade later in Santa Monica and got involved in his first environmental issue: writing letters about the Ballona Wetlands. It led him to join the water committee of the local Sierra Club.

When he married for a second time in 1982, he returned to Bakersfield.

"He loved it here," said his wife, Lorraine. "He loved treating the Okie patients," who, she recalled, sometimes paid him in powdered milk and Velveeta cheese.

In Kern County, the Ungers quickly discovered that being identified with the Sierra Club had its trials. Some employers forbid employees from lobbying for the group.

"We had Sierra Club written on our foreheads," his wife said. "But we weren't afraid. We were never afraid to tell anyone we were members of the Sierra Club."

Politics being what they are in Kern County, the chapter's stances were often at odds with local government.

When Ann Gallon was new to Bakersfield and appalled by the sprawl impacting her neighborhood, she realized that the Sierra Club "was the only entity that seemed to be doing something about it and would speak up about it."

She joined the chapter, met Unger and came to think of him as a mentor.

"He would kind of twist my arm to appear before the planning commission and the supervisors," she said.

Her reward? A thumbs up from Unger in the gallery.

Unger practiced what he preached. He got rid of the water guzzling grass in his yard and used xeriscape instead. He replaced his incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps. He kept home energy use to a minimum. Anyone with a plastic water bottle in his presence was chagrined.

He loved the outdoors. He and his wife took annual 10-day hikes into the Sierras or Idaho, searching out bears or unique habitats, including seeing a Pacific fisher on one trip.

His home contains what's likely the county's most complete collection of Environmental Impact Reports.

"The environment was his thing," his wife said. "He always thought he could make something better."

She said Unger had several health issues he was battling. He died at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital and donated his body to the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his sons, Leonard, of Los Angeles, and Steven, of San Ramon, and five grandchildren.

Funeral plans are pending.