Then-governor Baldacci speaks with Sidney Unobskey at Husson University in 2007, before announcing what at that time was the largest gift in the history of the school. Credit: BDN file photo

Sidney Unobskey, who grew up in Calais to become a nationally prominent real estate developer and pioneer the concept of the movie multiplex, died on Jan. 20. He was 83.

Unobskey died in San Francisco after a long battle with cancer, according to his obituary, published Wednesday in the Bangor Daily News.

Unobskey was best known as one of the early innovators in shopping mall and movie theater design, pioneering the concept of the multiplex, which houses multiple theaters under one roof. In 1967 and 1968, he worked on Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s plans to redevelop the then-struggling Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, and later on Kennedy’s fateful 1968 presidential campaign. He used contacts from real estate development to set up campaign events at shopping centers in voter-rich suburbs, according to his obituary.

In 1991, he was named chair of the San Francisco Planning Commission, helping guide the city’s recovery from the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that hit the city in 1989, killing more than 60 people and causing more than $5 billion in property damage.

In Maine, Unobskey was a well known supporter of education and economic development in Washington County, funding programs to expand local students’ opportunities.

“Sidney grew up in Calais, and while his professional life took him around the world, he never forgot his roots,” said Richard Warren, publisher of the Bangor Daily News, who served with Unobskey on the Roosevelt Campobello International Commission, the body that oversees the international park on Campobello Island. “He was a determined supporter of tourism and development in both Washington County and Charlotte County, New Brunswick. When he had an idea he felt worth pursuing, he was tenacious.”

Unobskey and his wife, Nancy, founded Unobskey College in Calais in 1998, which for 12 years offered college classes in one of Maine’s poorest counties with limited access to higher education. The college eventually became part of Husson University, to which the Unobskeys donated the $1.25 million Unobskey College building in 2007. Husson ended the college in 2010, citing low student numbers.

In 2009, Husson awarded Unobskey an honorary degree.

Last year, Unobskey launched the Unobskey Scholars Program, which each year will send 12 students from nine high schools in Washington County and Charlotte County, New Brunswick, to a summer session at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, where Unobskey attended high school.

“Phillips Academy has had many famous students — two presidents, five Nobel Prize winners, numerous actors and actresses, and coach Bill Belichick,” Unobskey said last year in announcing the program. “My hope is that someday a student from Washington or Charlotte Counties will be on the list of famous Phillips Academy attendees.”

Unobskey was born in 1937.

His grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Russia, via Ellis Island, in the early 20th century, and the family settled in Eastport in 1905, eventually opening Unobskey’s Store in nearby Calais in 1911, a clothing store that was in business for nearly 70 years.

Unobskey’s grandmother, Sarah, founded the first and only synagogue in Washington County, the Congregation of Chaim Yosef, which was active until 1974.

“Sarah liked Eastport. Its climate and look reminded her of home,” Sidney Unobskey said in an article published by the Maine Historical Society. “Even better…they could buy land here, something not allowed Jews in Russia.”

Unobskey’s father, Arthur, had an eighth-grade education, but was determined to send his son to college, Sidney Unobskey wrote in a 2009 BDN op-ed. Unobskey attended the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover, then went on to Yale University.

“Arthur knew something about the importance of education,” Unobskey wrote. “He and my mother made great sacrifices to send me to college.”

Unobskey later endowed a chair in American History at Yale in his father’s honor.

In 2006, President George W. Bush appointed him to the Roosevelt Campobello International Commission. In the 14 years he served on the commission, Unobskey worked on improving Campobello’s hiking, biking, and camping infrastructure, and promoting the island as a tourist destination.

Unobskey and his wife were married for 60 years, and they and their family traveled throughout North America, Europe, Southeast Asia and Australia during Unobskey’s long career in real estate development.

He is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, and five grandchildren.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.