I know many people are saddened and shocked by Jim Hunt’s passing.
I was, too, when I got back to my desk in Napa after an assignment in St. Helena last Tuesday night and received a voicemail from St. Helena High Athletic Hall of Fame treasurer Mike Werle, telling me Hunt had died unexpectedly that morning.
And the word “unexpectedly” is important. Sure, Hunt was 72 years old, but he was one of those people where the cliché “age is only a number” applied. He lived with a strong sense of purpose, and was a familiar face in the Napa Valley community. Being the historian and sports nerd that he was, he kept track of local teams and regularly attended games. He was the lifeblood of the St. Helena High Athletic Hall of Fame, which, for a number of reasons less obvious to the public, will never be the same without him.
So when I got that message I had to, one, wrap my head around this news and, two, do something I’ve never had to do when encountering someone’s death – scramble for how to report on it.
That meant I had to contact his family and bother them while they’re grieving and dealing with daunting mountain climb that comes with a death of a loved one. Thankfully, his daughters Robin Hunt Burns and Kim Hunt have been wonderful throughout the entire process.
In the end, I was glad I got to write it. I learned more about Hunt during those 24 hours than the two years I knew him. I mean, I had always known he was a great athlete and went on to play at UC Berkeley and all that, but I never knew things like he led the country in interceptions his junior year in 1964. The guy was an absolute ball hawk on defense.
I met Hunt a couple months after I was hired in 2015. He came by the St. Helena Star office and helped me get wise to his Hall of Fame. He showed me the upcoming class of inductees and provided these incredible stats sheets that had detailed information about every athlete’s production, accolades and specific place in the record books.
It’s also worth pointing out what it takes to compile something like that. He had to have spent countless hours sifting through reels of microfiche at the library, reading through every sports section of every year those athletes attended St. Helena High. He went through stacks of yearbooks and read strange writings from anonymous students that chronicled old teams.
And Hunt did this every single year for the past five years.
That’s when I realized the kind of resource he could be and did, in fact, become. In a community where many readers often care about hearing stories of the past just as much as the present, Hunt was someone I turned to for historical perspective and confirmation of things that would have taken me hours to get. When a player broke a record, he let me know, and that type of information adds substance and validity to game stories.
Toward the end of 2015, it came to my attention that the “On This Date” blurbs I ran from time to time in the Star sports section contained errors. It was compiled by one of my predecessors, and was useful whenever I was a few inches short of filing out my pages, but now it was completely compromised.
So, I had an idea. I reached out to Hunt and told him what had happened and that I was scrapping this popular series. I then pitched to him what later became “On This Date Plus,” a bi-monthly column that contained entries from the publish date in St. Helena sports history, as well as a profile of a notable athlete, team or moment to take it one step further and make it completely his own.
Hunt essentially became a part of the Star sports staff, and he will be missed. In fact, right here, in this very spot, would be his July 6 edition. And if you want even more evidence for how voracious a researcher he was and how passionate he was about sharing stories on St. Helena’s sports history, his family told us they found enough columns to last through 2018.
St. Helena and the Napa Valley community has lost a walking time capsule and a window into its past. Like the Napa Valley Register’s Pierce Carson, a beloved cultural icon in the North Bay Area, Hunt’s death cuts another tie to the days many in the valley yearn for.
Hunt is irreplaceable, and the void he has left behind will likely never be filled. In a poetic type of way, he was truly the embodiment of the motto he gave to the Hall of Fame, “preserving history, honoring excellence, and connecting generations.”