Back when Centreville was a sleepy, little town, Hunter Hardware wasn't just a place to buy tools and equipment. It was where folks gathered to chat, argue about politics and share the latest news.
And Jack Hunter — who came to town in 1946 and lived here more than 40 years — was the man who ran it. He was even a lifetime member of the Centreville Volunteer Fire Department and left an indelible mark on the local community.
SO WHEN he died Feb. 6, at age 79, of complications from a stroke, a bit of Centreville's heritage went with him. But he led a full and colorful life, and those who knew him best celebrated that life, at a memorial service, last Tuesday, Feb. 10, at the Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church in Front Royal, where he'd retired.
"People happy to know him shared a lot of wonderful stories about him," said Pete Kirby, current chief of the Centreville VFD. "He was very well-respected in the community as a fair and honest merchant. Back then, some of his customers didn't know how to read or write, so they'd ask for a product and hand him a whole gob of money. But they could trust him to charge the right amount and return the correct change."
Jack (actually John C. Hunter III) was born June 16, 1924 in Verona, N.J. He and his brother Herb, of Centreville's Gate Post Estates community, were both active in Boy Scouts and lived across the street from an apparently neighborhood-friendly penitentiary.
"We played baseball on the penitentiary diamond," recalled Herb Hunter. "All we had to do was throw our bat and ball over the 5-foot wall and climb over. The trustees maintained the ballfield, and all the kids in the neighborhood played there."
Later, during high school, when Jack was 16 and Herb, 15, the pair bought and ran a gas station in North Caldwell, N.J. "And this was during the height of gas rationing during World War II — 1941-42," said Hunter.
BESIDES BEING an enterprising businessman, said his brother, "Jack was a damn good fencer, and the two of us had fencing scholarships to Seton Hall College." (A decade later, in the 1950s, Herb and Jack would give fencing lessons to local residents at the Centreville fire station).
However, Jack's college days were short-lived. "He put in a year until the war intervened," said Hunter. "He went into the Navy at age 17, and I followed, a year later. Our dad was already in the Navy."
Jack served on a submarine chaser, the U.S.S. West Virginia, and later painted a picture of it and hung it in his home. After the war, the dad and two sons moved to Centreville, buying a 91-acre farm across from what's now Centreville High.
They worked in real estate and also farmed. "At one time, we grew corn and raspberries and had 1,000 chickens," recalled Hunter. "In 1951, Jack went on vacation and my father noticed the hardware store in Centreville was for sale. We bought it and told Jack about it when he got back."
Then, the store stood on the hill where Route 29 meets Old Centreville Road (years later, under owner Roger Bostic — who worked in it as a kid — Hunter Hardware moved to its current location in Old Centreville Crossing Shopping Center).
Although all the Hunters had a hand in it, Jack actually ran the store, from Nov. 21, 1951 until he sold it to Bostic in the late 1980s. In its heyday, people from all walks of life gravitated there. "They'd come in and discuss politics," said Hunter. "It was the hub of the [local] universe."
"WE USED to have a group that met in there, every Saturday morning," said Centreville's Tom Hatcher, 85. "We pulled a lot of pranks and tricks, but Jack went right along with them."
He knew Jack for 40 years and said his personality, general makeup and "sterling qualities of leadership" made him stand out in a crowd. "I thought a lot of him," said Hatcher. "He was one of a kind. He had his own views of life, but he'd respect others' views. He was also a rugged individual — the type that, if I was in a fight, I'd want him on my side."
But even so, he said he never saw Jack raise his voice or get upset. Calling him a "remarkable person," he said Jack did things the way he thought they should be done. "He and his whole family were good, community people," said Hatcher. "They came to Centreville when it was just a wide spot in the road and did a lot of good here."
Another long-time Centreville resident, Kenyon Davis, first met Jack around 1940. When Davis worked at the Centreville Garage, the Hunters would bring him their cars to repair. But he also knew Jack from the Centreville Volunteer Fire Department. Like Davis, he was a firefighter, working his way through the ranks to become assistant chief, for several years, while Davis was chief.
Jack attended firefighter training schools as early as 1953 at the University of Maryland. And he went to the first such school in Virginia, in 1957, in South Boston, Va.
"Jack was very dependable," said Davis. "You couldn't ask for a better assistant chief. He did whatever you asked him to and, outside the department, he was my friend, too. We'd have all-day fire drills and invite neighboring departments to join us — and we'd plan it together, dreaming up how everything should go."
In addition to everything else — including being a husband and father — Jack was a Mason and belonged to the Acacia Lodge in Clifton. All in all, said Davis, "Jack was honest and fair and just an asset to the community."
AFTER SELLING the hardware store, Jack opened and ran a hardware store in Nokesville, for a year or so, with his oldest son, Bill. But when Bill moved away, Jack retired and moved to Front Royal in 1990.
"He was in excellent health, up until the past five years," said Herb Hunter. "But he had a stroke, Jan. 13, and afterward, he was paralyzed on the right side and couldn't speak or swallow. Then water built up in his lungs. So it was a blessing that he didn't linger; he wouldn't have wanted to live that way."
He died, Feb. 6, in Warren Memorial Hospital in Front Royal, and is deeply missed by all his loved ones. "Every time I got into a scrap, he was there for me," said Hunter. "We were buddies for all of our lives."
Besides his brother and sister-in-law, Herb and Julia Hunter of Centreville, he's survived by his wife Toni — to whom he was married for 55 years; daughter and son-in-law, Mary Ann and Michael Krehbiel of Bealeton; son and daughter-in-law, Bill and Leesa Hunter of Montana; son and daughter-in-law, Bruce and Diana of Clifton; four grandchildren and one greatgrandson.
Contributions may be made to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, P.O. Drawer 1109, Front Royal, VA. 22630 for its memorial garden fund. That's where Jack was a member, and its pastor, the Rev. Robert Jones, officiated at his memorial service.
"Jack hated funerals, and I used to tell him he'd be late for his own," said Hunter. But, he added sadly, "He was there."