‘He’s been my safe haven’
Tommy Hunter said when he and his brothers, Jeff and Dale, were growing up, they “fought like cats and dogs all the time.”
“Especially me and Jeff,” he remembers. “But every time me and Jeff would get in a fight, Dale would jump in on Jeff’s side, so it was two against one because I was the biggest. That’s the way it was all the time, but you let anybody else say something or do something to either one of us, and it was three against them. We didn’t take no prisoners when they were fighting us.”
Jeff Hunter passed away three years ago, and less than two weeks ago on May 8, the youngest brother, Dale, became the first Gilmer Countian to die of complications from the Covid-19 coronavirus, according to family members. The Georgia Department of Health reported one death from Covid-19 in the county on May 12.
“Dale was a kidney transplant patient, and was on anti-rejection medication for around 16 years,” Tommy explained. “His immune system wasn’t up to par. As soon as Gov. (Brian) Kemp came out with that shelter-in-place order for the high-risk people, his doctor sent a letter to his company that he worked for, and from that point forth, he was at home. He didn’t go back there (to work).
“He knew that if he got it, it wouldn’t be good. We still don’t know where he got this at.”
Tommy recalled the family moved to Ellijay from Charlotte, N.C., the day before school started in August of 1970. He was asked about some stories of his growing up years with Dale.
“He got his front teeth knocked out one time at the hospital,” Tommy recalled. “They gave him a shot and he was standing there, and the next thing you know he was wobbling around a little bit, and the lights went dark, and he fell down and his front teeth hit a metal tray when he fell down. They put his teeth back in, but it was a hoot to hear him tell that story.
“We were all the time getting in trouble.”
One of those incidents was when Dale got two black Labrador retrievers.
“He kept the female and named it Ellie Mae, and the guy he gave the male to named it Jethro,” Tommy said. “He said Ellie Mae was the smartest dog he’d ever seen, but Jethro was dumb as a box of hammers.”
Dale worked with the boy who got Jethro.
“So Dale picked him up and they were going to work and that boy started hollering, ‘I’m going to kill Jethro!’ Dale asked him what was going on,” Tommy said. “The dog had a habit of bringing everything he found into the house, and the day before Jethro had started barking and chasing something through the weeds and ended up catching it. He started back to the house with it, and it was a skunk — and it was still alive! Dale laughed when he told the story because he said he gave the boy the dumb dog.”
Aby Hunter Burnett, Dale’s oldest daughter, said before her father died he was “trying to stay at home and stay away from everybody, (but) got an infection in his brain and meningitis, and started shutting down.”
“Daddy was always a prankster,” she continued when asked about her childhood. “Every summer we went to the lake in Blue Ridge. We had skis and some (flotation) stuff and a boat, and he would do everything he could to try and throw us off. He’d even do doughnuts on the lake. If he threw us off, he always got a big kick out of it – but it was always our goal to stay on!”
The family also enjoyed visiting Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
“He and my stepmom were actually looking for a house up there this past year, that’s where he wanted to retire,” Aby said. “We would spend several days up there. Daddy was a big Ford man — he had six Mustangs he’d bought and restored over the years, (including) a ‘67 Shelby and a ‘71 Boss. He loved to take them up there and show them.
“Daddy would do anything for anybody, it didn’t matter, and go help anybody he could.”
She remembered one humorous incident from her high school years.
“I was a sophomore or a junior and wasn’t home one weekend, and some friends of mine were going to play a prank on me and decided to ‘roll’ our front yard (with toilet paper),” Aby recalled. “They ended up waking Daddy up — and there are two versions of the story. Daddy said the dog was barking and he went and looked out the window and saw some kids out in the yard. Our driveway just backs up straight into (Highway) 282, and he said they were leaving.
“But my friends said the (house) light turned on and they jumped in the car, and all of a sudden they see this 6-foot-5 man in his underwear, running at the car in the dark while they’re backing out of our driveway. He almost caught them, and they were scared to death!”
When Aby’s oldest daughter, Carly, was born, her father insisted on picking up his first grandchild from her Nana’s house, who watched her during the day.
“One day after work when I came to pick her up, Dad had a guilty look,” Aby recalled. “I asked if Carly had been good and he said, ‘Well, she’s not feeling good and I tried everything to get her to stop crying, and nothing would soothe her.’ He said he was getting really frustrated rocking her in his chair and she still wouldn’t stop.
“My Dad was soft-spoken, but he’d had enough and raised his voice and said, ‘Carly, that’s enough!’ He said her little lip quivered and she got big tears in her eyes. He said, ‘So I sat there and cried with her because her look broke my heart, and I was afraid I scared her.’ He loved his grandkids.”
‘He was vey animated’
Stephanie Hunter Silva remembered her father as being “Superman.”
“You could ask him anything and he’d have an answer — of course, when you’re little you weren’t sure if it was the right answer, but it seemed to be! There was not anything he could not do, he could build and play basketball. He had the old town feel and everybody knew him,” she said.
Stephanie said she was married at Park Vista in Gatlinburg, “because I knew it was one of the family’s favorite spots, and it was beautiful.”
One incident stands out in her memory.
“Dad wanted all us girls to have four-wheelers,” she said. “My little sister, Whitney, had a smaller one, and Aby had a bigger-size one. So he was letting me try out one of them to test my driving skills, to see if I could get one of my own. It was winter, and there was snow and ice, and I went to turn around and slid off the road down this huge bank and had this big four-wheeler sitting on top of me. And my Dad, of course, picked this thing up like it was easy-greasy, no-weight nothing, and just picked it up off me.
“He said, ‘You looked up at me and I was right there. Then I blinked and you were gone!’ But he never let me live that down! We all drive horrible according to my Dad, if you asked him, but I was the worst!”
Stephanie also will miss his stories.
“He was very soft-spoken when you talked to him, but if you got him into his stories he was very animated,” she said. “He could make you believe anything.”
‘Stronger than steel’
Whitney Hunter posted on social media a thank-you for everyone who prayed for her father and the family.
“He lost his battle to COVID tonight,” she said. “He fought so hard, but his body was tired. He gave it everything he had, but this evil, vile disease won out … I always thought I’d have more time.”
Whitney said her dad “loved his family fiercely, and did everything he could do in his power to give us girls whatever we needed all our lives.
“He was stronger than steel, smarter than anyone I’d ever met, kind, soft-spoken and could tell one heck of a story,” she wrote. “I’ve heard his stories hundreds of times, but I’d always listen to just watch him get so animated and fully immerse himself in them. Now we are going to have to learn how to navigate a life without our rock, our glue keeping us together.
“I keep telling myself I wish this was all just a bad dream ... but the hole in my heart won’t let me forget. My daddy was a good man, a kind man, the type of man who would do anything in his power to help someone out when they needed it. He’s been my safe haven I can always run back to no matter how old I get.”
Whitney then gave some heartfelt advice.
“Take a moment tonight and hug the ones you love,” she admonished. “If you aren’t able to hug them, call them tomorrow. Tell them. You don’t want to miss any opportunity to let them know, because you never know when it will be the last. Time is not ever on our side.”
And a final note: “I love you, Daddy — more than you will ever know.”