Loud, proud, a legend

Jim Hunt, who died of heart failure on Wednesday, was a man who had an inexhaustible love of family...

Jim Hunt, who died of heart failure on Wednesday, was a man who had an inexhaustible love of family while conducting a passionate affair with the world of sports for the past half century. (Toronto Sun File/Stan Behal)

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:08 PM ET

The weather reports yesterday predicted thunder overnight, although some people believe it merely was Jim Hunt making his entrance into heaven.

Shaky never went anywhere quietly.

Hunt, 79 when he died of heart failure on Wednesday, was a man who had an inexhaustible love of family while conducting a passionate affair with the world of sports.

Tributes poured in for Hunt, whose unmistakable booming voice marked the unofficial opening of every major sporting event in this country for almost 50 years.

"You didn't have to be in the press box to know Jim Hunt was in the building. You could be two floors away and hear him. He had this thundering voice," Sun Media corporate sports editor George Gross said. "And whether he was at the Super Bowl or Exhibition Stadium or the office, that never changed. When he walked into a room he had a presence."

Hunt was a member of the first journalism graduating class at the University of Western Ontario when he was hired by the Toronto Star in 1948. He moved from the Queen's Park bureau to sports in 1952. In 1961 he joined CKEY Radio and, when it closed, went to the Toronto Sun in 1983.

Those are the statistics. But they don't even begin to tell the story; fitting for a guy who, as a sports columnist, never let anything as blase as a statistic get in the way of his opinion.

"He loved to debate and could do it well, whether it was sports, politics or society in general," Sun sports editor, Pat Grier said. "There was a fierce intelligence behind that youthful playfulness. He loved life and what he did, and got the most out of it. You could say he reached the age of 79 without growing old."

Jim Coleman, one of Ol' Hunt's newspaper contemporaries, once described him as "the world's oldest adolescent." Hunt's Sun colleague, lunch companion and golf partner, Mike Rutsey, said. "He was so much fun to be around because he was always upbeat and he didn't have the snarky cynicism that is so prevalent in today's press boxes. Jim was always a joy and saw wonderment in everything and that's going to be missed."

He covered Stanley Cups, the Masters, U.S. Opens, Super Bowls, Olympics and the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series. "He was a good journalist and when CKEY shut down I wanted him because I knew he had been such a fine writer with the Star's Weekend magazine," Gross said. "He had an incredible memory and it made him one of the best storytellers since Hans Christian Andersen."

Except that the ones Jim told weren't fairy tales. Sometimes it just seemed that way. Like the one about how he met Marilyn Munroe in Niagara Falls in the 1950s. Or, the time he dressed up in a trench coat and dark glasses and walked into Maple Leaf Gardens toting a rifle over his shoulder to prove there wasn't any security.

STORIES

"People loved him for his stories and he loved telling them," daughter Kathryn, 44, said yesterday. "And it got to a point that we could finish them for him. He brought his job home through his stories. I remember in public school when he had a slip of the tongue on radio and mispronounced Steve Schutt ... the teachers and kids were all talking about it.

"We realized quite young that he was special to a lot of people. If we were out for dinner people would often recognize him and come over and talk. They shared their enthusiasm of his work. He touched a lot of people," Kathryn said.

Tall. Gangly. He wore his clothes and his omnipresent grin with a rumpled elegance and a devilish sense of fun. He had an ego but never any pretensions about himself or his profession. He could be wonderfully self-deprecating. Like the time the Star magazine sent him to Quebec City. He was to interview Punch Imlach, then the coach there, and Jean Beliveau, who was the best player not in the NHL.

He went by train to Montreal and met his brother and some friends and they took him to the press club and got him absolutely stiff. They told him, "Don't worry, we've got your train fare to Quebec" for the next day, which is when he was supposed to see Imlach and Beliveau.

They put him on the overnight train. Shaky falls asleep on his berth and wakes up as the train chugs into the station early the next morning. "He gets off and, he's walking, saying, "Wow! The train station here really reminds me of Union Station," Rutsey said, "and he walks out and he's staring at the Royal York Hotel. He said it took him five minutes to realize his brother and cronies had sent him back to Toronto as a gag. He had to rush to the airport, and at great expense to the Star, fly to Quebec City to make his appointment. He loved telling that story."

His abiding love was the Canadian Football League. Between 1949 and 1999 he attended every Grey Cup game. "I don't know if the Grey Cup was all about Jim Hunt or if Hunt was all about the Grey Cup," former CFL commissioner Jake Gaudaur, now 86, said. "He's going to be looking down and reading what people are saying about him and say: 'What a lot of claptrap.' "

Hunt had an outrageous way of transcending events and becoming the story himself. And so, for years, the Grey Cup's media conference with the two coaches wasn't complete until Jim had asked the question: Were the coaches going to allow the players to have sex leading up to the game?

Edmonton's Joe Faragalli uttered the now infamous response: "Actually, the sex itself is calm and soothing. It's the chasing that wears the players out.' "

Shaky had his story. Everyone else had a laugh. The end to another perfect day - and just a snapshot in a perfect convergence of a man and his profession. The last time he had a real job, he was fond of saying, was lifting whiskey barrels one summer at Seagrams when he was in school. "My dad always felt blessed because he thought he had the best job and loved it every day," Kathryn said.

In a profession that can be murderous on family lives, Hunt was married for 54 years. He is survived by his wife, Carolyn. They lived in the same Leaside home they bought 44 years ago. He spoke proudly, and often, of his four children, Cally, Kathryn, Rod and Andrew and six grandchildren, including Ben, who is in his first year of journalism at Ryerson.

"He was a loving, caring father. He wanted to share our lives with us," Kathryn said. "He had strong opinions. He could get very feisty and that was all part of my dad. But he was never dogmatic and he saw the humour in everything."

Nobody could ever accuse him of being shy. Everyone knew what Shaky felt about everything. At one of Shaky's retirement parties (he never did actually retire, his last weekly column for the Sun appearing Feb. 28) former CFL general manager Ralph Sazio recalled, "When I first came up from the U.S. I went to my first game and I was sitting in the press box. I asked, 'Who's that big, loud guy in the front row who doesn't know anything about football?'

"Just last month a scout for the Bills was in the press box with me and he asks, 'Who's that big, loud guy in the front row who doesn't know anything about football?'

"Thirty years later and the answer is still the same: Jim Hunt." Nobody enjoyed the tale more than Shaky.

The nickname? It came thanks to his intramural goaltending career at Western and had nothing to do with his legendary disregard for English grammar.

Jim never was bullied, even when Blue Jays slugger George Bell once screamed, "I keel you, Hunt!" He was never over-awed by the famous and the powerful. He had an ongoing battle with Leafs owner Harold Ballard, who once banned him from the Gardens. "But at the end of Harold's life he asked dad to come up and interview him," Kathryn said.

He saved some of his sharpest criticism for the CFL, perhaps because he loved it so much. "He'd criticize things I've done," Gaudaur said. "His style was to question without restraint. He'd criticize when he thought it was merited. It was amazing how often he was right. I hate to admit that ... you couldn't take offence. He was fun to be around regardless of what he said about you, your organization or the sport."

Visitation is Monday from 7-9 p.m. at Humphrey Funeral Home, 1403 Bayview Ave. The memorial service is Tuesday at 11 a.m. at St. Cuthbert's Anglican Church, 1399 Bayview Ave.

"I'm not sure how a person becomes a legend," Gaudaur said, "but if it means a man who gives everything to his craft then Shaky belongs among the legends of Canadian media."


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