By Matt Youngfrau
MIDDLETOWN July 15, 2003 This hit me a lot harder than I expected.
That was the common sentiment at New York State Assemblyman Jacob Gunther IIIs wake and funeral Sunday in Middletown.
Gunther, 50, died Wednesday after a brief bout with cancer. Shock and disbelief spread throughout Sullivan and Orange counties and the entire state. Most did not know he was that sick. Many expected Gunther would win this battle against cancer, just like he won so many battles in Albany.
But that was not meant to be. The 50-year-old Forestburgh resident left behind a wife, three children, two brothers and his parents. Gunther also left behind many more family members, friends, and colleagues than he might have ever imagined.
Some in attendance at the wake and funeral compared it to the crowd that came out to honor the late Judge Lawrence Cooke. Besides earning the respect of all they encountered, the two Sullivan County men shared much in common. Both were devoted family people. Both remembered all those they came in contact with and genuinely cared about the people and the area they served. Both strived to leave the world a better place than how they found it.
Due to Gunthers age and the fact that few knew how serious his condition truly was, the shock reverberated throughout the community in the days leading up to his funeral.
On Thursday, just a little more than 24 hours after Gunthers death, the Sullivan County Legislature held its regular slate of committee meetings. Gunther was honored in the committees of Health and Family Services, Veterans, and Executive. However, the somber mood all day indicated that everyone present was thinking of Gunther and his family.
At the wake on Friday, hundreds of people came to pay their respects. Among them were New York State Governor George Pataki, former United States Congressman Benjamin Gilman, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, members of the Sullivan and Orange County legislatures, and many family and friends.
The memorial card handed out throughout the weekend summed up Gunther well. It was titled Success and was a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.
It read, To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
The proof was evident all weekend as lines of people waited over an hour at the Applebee-McPhillips Funeral Home in Middletown Friday and Saturday to comfort and grieve with the family.
The crowd was even larger on Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church in Middletown for Gunthers funeral. Although the services were scheduled for 2 p.m., people were arriving at 12:30 p.m. When services began, well over 600 people filled the large church.
The Reverend Daniel Morse of the First Presbyterian Church led the service. He was assisted by Father Pat McWiggin from Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Bloomingburg (and the unofficial pastor of the Sullivan County Democratic Party).
Before, during, and after the two-hour service, Gunthers favorite music played softly. Such songs as Summer Wind and classics from Bob Dylan and the Beatles jogged more than a few memories of Jake.
Among the pallbearers were longtime friends like Sullivan County Clerk George Cooke, Gunthers aide Sean Hanofee, and Gunthers son, Jacob IV.
Jake was very beautiful, commented United States Congressman Maurice Hinchey during the service. This is a great tribute to him that so many of his good friends are here. He was what many of us aspire to be. He was original, irreverent and full of love, hope and optimism. He was wonderful to be with.
We shared many things, Hinchey continued. He was full of energy. Some people say that with Jake, nothing was sacred. But the truth was that everything was sacred to Jake. We all seek God in our own way. Jake found God everywhere. He left much for all of us. There is much to revel in. I thank God and thank him for his presence, his love, and the opportunity to be with him.
He was a friend, a father, a son, a husband, a brother, and so many things, remarked New York State Assemblyman Bill Parment, who then recalled Gunthers lighter yet simultaneously serious side. In the Assembly, they loved him. No one had a bad word about him. He said the right thing at the wrong time. He said what others were afraid to say. If the emperor had no clothes, Jake would say the emperor had no brain. Then he would apologize later.
He was fun to be around, Parment continued. He never took himself too seriously. There was not a phony bone in his body. I will miss him greatly. He had a common-sense approach we all loved. We all loved Jake. Better yet, Jake loved us.
There have been many words of support and kindness, stated Gunthers brother, William. We were all blessed to have him in our lives. He was a man among men. We will meet again. He lived life completely and intensely. As Jake often said, Take my advice, pull down your pants and slide on the ice.
This is a beautiful day the kind of weather Jacob loved, Gunthers wife Aileen said. Our family thanks you for your presence, concern and support. He lived all the days of his life. He had a zest and enthusiasm for life. He loved politics it made him tick. He was blessed, and he had no regrets.
He was a warrior, Aileen continued. It defined him. He fought the good fight. He stayed the course. . . . He knew how much you loved him.
After her remarks, those in attendance gave Aileen a standing ovation. She wiped back tears and hugged family as she went back to her seat.
This has been an amazing tribute, commented Morse. Life is a struggle. A source of joy is to help others. Jake not only changed the equation, he took it in a whole different direction. He told the truth and had fun.
We remember and we mourn, McWiggin said. He was a good, decent, honest man. He made a difference in our lives. He made the world a better place.
After the tributes, the service moved outside, where hundreds laid flowers on Gunthers casket. Then approximately 150 of Gunthers family and friends went to Mr. Willys in Monticello for a reception in his honor.
There, Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver spoke, saying he could now picture Gunther in a tie-dyed toga hanging out with John Lennon and George Harrison.