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THE LATE ASSEMBLYMAN Jake Gunther, center, is seen at the county government center in Monticello in October 2002 with friends and fellow politicians Ben Gilman, left, and Maurice Hinchey.

'He Was a Good
Friend First'

By Matt Youngfrau
SULLIVAN COUNTY — July 11, 2003 – For several hours on Wednesday, the world of Sullivan County seemed to stop. For the first time since the events of September 11, 2001, one single thing happened that made everyone pause and reflect on life.
On Wednesday, New York State Assemblyman and Forestburgh resident Jake Gunther III died after a brief bout with cancer.
The malignant germ-cell tumor in a lymph node just below his neck was diagnosed on his 50th birthday on June 11. Less than a month later, it claimed him.
His passing shocked and grieved people near and far, many of whom praised his commitment and passion to the area he called home.
“Jake left a positive mark on the community,” noted longtime friend and Sullivan County Clerk George Cooke.
Cooke cut his vacation in Cape Cod short to visit his ailing friend in an Albany hospital – but arrived too late.
“He would always assist when needed. He was a good guy, a good friend,” recalled Cooke. “I am devastated. He was not a traditional politician. He was a devoted family man, and no one loved their family more than Jake.”
When word reached the Sullivan County Government Center in Monticello, County Manager Dan Briggs lowered the flags to half-staff.
“My thoughts and prayers are with his family,” he said. “He was a great statesman for the county. He was an outstanding legislator, family man, and friend.”
“I am very upset about his loss,” added New York State Appellate Division (Third Department) Associate Justice Anthony Kane, a Forestburgh neighbor of the Gunther family. “He was a longtime friend and neighbor. Our families were very close. It is a great loss personally and for the community. He was a great guy.”
“Jake was an unabashed supporter of the college,” commented Sullivan County Community College President Dr. Mamie Howard Golladay. “His children went here, and he was very proud of that fact. He also supported us by getting us funding for many projects.We will all miss Jake. This is a huge personal loss for me.”
“He was a good friend first,” Sullivan County BOCES Superintendent Dr. Martin Handler stated. “He was a tremendous supporter of public education – especially in rural areas. He worked closely with the rural schools. I will miss him very much.”
“This is a tragedy,” Town of Fallsburg Supervisor Steven Levine said.
Gunther was a strong fighter against tax-exempt lands, which is a major issue in Fallsburg. He and Levine worked for years to try and get the law changed.
“He was a good friend to Fallsburg and the whole county. He will sorely be missed,” said Levine. “Personally, I will miss his effectiveness in dealing with the issues.”
His efforts weren’t limited to Fallsburg, however.
“With what Jake contributed to the Town of Bethel and the county, there is no way anyone can come close to that,” remarked Bethel Supervisor Allan Scott. “He found his way into the hearts and souls of everyone in Sullivan County. I have tremendous respect for him.”
“Jake and I share the same birthday,” Sullivan County District 2 Legislator Kathleen LaBuda recalled through tears. (LaBuda is a fellow Democrat and represents the Town of Fallsburg on the County Legislature.) “He was supposed to be at the Sullivan County Democratic Convention. I was going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. He was a good friend. We go back over 25 years. He proves that the good die young.”
“I am absolutely devastated,” commented Sullivan County Legislature Chair Leni Binder.
Binder and Gunther had a political falling out last year when Binder was elected chair and switched from the Democratic to Republican Parties, but that mattered little to the District 7 legislator now.
“Even after our political differences, we still worked together on county issues for the betterment of the county,” said Binder. “I can’t imagine not seeing his smile. It is unfathomable. It goes beyond words what a personal loss this is to the community. The county will certainly miss him.”
And not just the county is mourning.
A Region Remembers
“First of all, he was a good, dear, close, personal friend,” United States Congressman Maurice Hinchey stated somberly. “He was an honorable man. It was a pleasure to be with him. He had a great sense of humor, and he had a kind of audacity that was refreshing.
“He was a very hard worker on behalf of the people he represented,” Hinchey continued. “He was a strong advocate and worked hard on behalf of Sullivan and Orange counties. He wanted to make things better. He wanted to improve the lives of the people in the area he represented.”
“I am completely without words,” stated a subdued Roberta Byron-Lockwood, president and CEO of the Sullivan County Visitors Association.
Byron-Lockwood and Gunther served together for many years on tourism groups throughout the state and became very good friends.
“We lost an important person. He touched us in many ways. He was a tremendous talent and friend,” she said. “We need to reflect on what he did for us and the county. He was a tremendous friend to all of us. My prayers are with his family.”
“A native son who rose to prominence and never forgot the people he represented, Jake had a way of speaking that required others to listen, whether one agreed with him or not,” Gerry Foundation CEO Alan Gerry stated in a prepared statement. “His comments were sometimes bold, often filled with optimism, and usually touched with a wry sense of understanding that easily turned to humor. We will remember Jake as a man devoted to his family and to the people he served. We will remember him as someone who cared more for effective action than pretense. We will remember him as one who did not fear to live his life, take a risk or speak his mind. He will be sorely missed by all of us whose lives he touched.”
Gunther was born in Middletown on June 11, 1953. He graduated from Middletown High School and went on to earn an Associate of Arts Degree from Orange County Community College. Gunther also attended the University of California at Santa Barbara, studying psychology for two years.
In 1978, Gunther and his wife, the former Aileen Malone (a registered nurse at Catskill Regional Medical Center in Harris), moved back to the family homestead in Forestburgh. Gunther served as a volunteer fire fighter and spent four years as a Forestburgh town justice. He was first elected to the Assembly in 1992 and enjoyed re-election four times thereafter.
“My prayers are with his family,” said longtime friend and Forestburgh resident James Galligan. “We lost a good person. He was a good friend to my family.”
“He was a good friend, and I will miss him,” remarked Village of Monticello Mayor Gary Sommers. “He was not concerned about party lines. He did what was best for the area.”
“Jake was a rather unique individual,” reflected an emotional Sullivan County Democratic Party Chair Bob Krutman. “He said what he thought. He was a kind, compassionate man. He will not be easily replaced. I truly loved him. He was a kind, courageous, fierce individual. He was a good friend.”
Gunther’s family would not speak publicly. However, they released the following statement: “The family is gathered at home to celebrate his life.”
Respected and Loved
Besides all of Sullivan County, Gunther represented the cities of Middletown and Port Jervis and the towns of Deerpark, Minisink, Greenville, and Wawayanda in Orange County. The avid hunter and fisherman was a strong advocate for protecting individual rights and liberties, safeguarding the environment, helping public education, and property tax reform. He served on many state committees, including Agriculture, Environmental Conservation, Oversight, Analysis, and Investigation, Racing and Wagering, Real Property Taxation, and Tourism, Arts, and Sports Development.
When word of Gunther’s death was released, statements from officials throughout the state poured forth on his loss.
“We are deeply saddened at the passing of Assemblyman Jake Gunther,” New York Governor George Pataki said in a press release. “Assemblyman Gunther was a tremendous advocate on behalf of the people of Sullivan and Orange counties. He was someone who always looked for ways to help others and who always put the interests of his community and all New Yorkers first. On behalf of all New Yorkers, our thoughts and prayers are with Jake’s wife Aileen and their three young children, Jake IV, Caitlin, and Mary Alice, during this difficult time.”
“Today I join countless others in mourning the loss of Jake Gunther,” New York State Senator Bill Larkin said in a statement. “I have had the privilege of working with Jake on many projects over the years and consider his career one full of remarkable accomplishments. Respected for the strength of his convictions and his advocacy on behalf of the people of Sullivan and Orange counties, he was a tireless worker, a dedicated representative and a proud New Yorker. More importantly, Jake was a devoted husband and father. He gave his best to his community, his profession, and his family. I give thanks for his life and what I have shared with him. My thoughts and prayers are with Jake’s family and friends during this time of sorrow.”
“With his death, the communities of Sullivan and Orange counties that he loved and served have lost a true and determined advocate, while New York State has lost a spirited and independent legislator,” State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said in a statement. “He was respected and well-liked by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and he will be greatly missed.
“In the Assembly, Jake’s common-sense approach to public service was as welcomed as his wonderful sense of humor, which he shared with colleagues and staff alike,” Silver continued. “While we are all deeply saddened by his passing, we also celebrate his many achievements, the humanity he brought to this job and his compassion and commitment to public service. His zest for life and his easy smile will long be remembered by all who know him.”
“My family and I are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of my friend and colleague, Assemblyman Jake Gunther, and we extend our deepest sympathy to his wife Aileen and his entire family,” New York State Senator John Bonacic released. “When people first get elected to the State Legislature, they go to Albany with optimism and a belief that they can change the world. Jake Gunther, even after five terms in office, still had the same enthusiasm he had the first day in office. His energy was infectious and sense of humor among the best in the Legislature. He will be sorely missed by all. May God bless him and his family.”
“The New York State Democratic Committee mourns the sad passing of our friend, our colleague, and a great Democratic leader, Jake Gunther,” read the statement of State Democratic Chair Herman “Denny” Farrell. “Jake was a committed public servant who worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituents in Sullivan County and New York State. He stood for the values and principles of the Democratic Party and was a fighter for a clean and safe environment, for quality schools, and for affordable health care for our seniors. We will miss Jake, his compassion, and particularly, his sense of humor in the Assembly. On behalf of a grateful party, I extend our deepest sympathies to his wife Aileen and their children, Jake, Caitlin, and Mary Alice.”
“The county as a whole is shocked and stunned by the death of Jake Gunther,” Sullivan County Judge and Surrogate Frank LaBuda said in a letter to the Sullivan County Democrat, “Jake was a family friend with whom I have hunted with in the past. We shared many good times together in our county. The loss to his friends, family, and his County of Sullivan can never be filled. We have the comfort in knowing that he left this county a better place because of his unselfish and untiring work as our Assemblyman in Albany and mentor in the county. I interrupted court today and had a courtroom of attorneys and litigants stand in prayer for the eternal rest which God has given our Jake. Jake accomplished great things because he not only cared but dreamed; not only planned but also believed – that is his legacy.”
And that legacy will be remembered.
Sullivan County Sheriff Dan Hogue plans to send an honor guard to Gunther’s funeral, scheduled for this Sunday in Middletown. The Sullivan County Legislature passed a resolution in his honor at their Executive Committee meeting yesterday. The Town of Thompson will pass a similar resolution at their meeting on Tuesday. It is expected such resolutions will be created by all the towns and villages in the county.
In addition to his wife and children, Gunther is survived by his parents, his brother Roy and his wife, and many more family and friends.
Visitation will be at the Applebee McPhillips Funeral Home in Middletown on Friday and Saturday from 3-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church in Middletown.
Please see his obituary on page 2B.

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