ROMA '25 AND JOHN '24 GURNEY
By Rachel Coen '98
Roma Sexton Gurney '25 was 94 when she died January 5, 1997. Her husband, John E. Gurney '24, was 95 when he died seven months and a day later. Jack had insisted on living alone after Roma's death, remaining active and still driving his car until two weeks before he died as a result of a fall in their Corona del Mar, California, home.
Once known as "Oberlin's Golden Couple" because of their exceptional good looks and talents, Jack and Roma met at Oberlin and married a few years later, in 1929. Their 68-year marriage was one of the few constants in their remarkably vibrant and varied lives.
Roma, who took her Oberlin degree in art history and studio art, and was class president in her senior year, continued her study of art for a time after graduation, and taught art at the community high school in her native Elmhurst, Illinois, for four years. In 1929, after she and Jack were married, she became a full-time homemaker.
At his parents' insistence, Jack had majored in physics at Oberlin and, always an athlete, played football and captained the baseball team. Deeply interested in music, he found time to sing in several amateur productions at the College. While working towards a masters degree in business administration at Harvard, he sang with the Harvard Glee Club. Harvard's opera coach convinced him to travel to Paris to study voice, and Jack, happy to accept his advice, studied abroad only a year before he was engaged as the leading basso by the American Opera Company in 1928.
So began a long and highly distinguished career in music. For several years he toured extensively, singing with Roxy's Gang and the National Music League, and as a soloist with the Ziegfield Follies. By 1935 he was under contract to the Metropolitan Opera, where, over the years, he would give 330 performances in 34 operas. Jack later wrote in a letter to Oberlin that during these years he "sang in every state in the Union, averaging 50 concerts per year."
Fifteen years into his singing career, he decided that he would like to spend more time with his family, and, in a marked change of pace, switched to his second career as a grower of avocados and citrus fruit in Riverside, California. He and Roma lived there until 1962 when they retired to Corona del Mar where they spent the rest of their days together.
It seems certain that the Gurney household was never dull. In addition to his singing, which he never really gave up, Jack designed and built their furniture, enjoyed drawing and painting, and could always tell a good story. One of his favorites, reports The Orange County Register, was of an evening in the 1930s when he was invited to sing at the home of the then-governor of New York. The guest of honor was none other than Albert Einstein, who asked to play the fiddle to accompany Jack's singing of "Old Man River." Jack used to say that "though not a professional, Einstein played well enough."
The Gurneys are survived by their two children: Dan, who became--to the rather artistically-inclined family's surprise--a world-famous race-car driver, and daughter Cellissa. They also leave eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.