This year, even as his health betrayed him, Dr. Gene Hunt was a presence at VCU games. Hunt filled his 81 years to the brim with life, love and memories through lasting friendships, far-flung travels and rich experiences, and he wasn’t going to let an act as trivial as changing an oxygen tank at halftime stop him.
Hunt, an ardent but gentle presence in the VCU community for five decades (and RPI before that) was laid to rest last week. Since its inception in 1968, there has been no greater champion of VCU than Hunt.
Rare were the times when Dr. Hunt wasn’t draped in black and gold, wearing an impossibly warm grin, his kind features framed by his white Abraham Lincoln beard, with his lovely wife Honey by his side.
There were times I felt like I saw Gene and Honey more than my wife, because they were everywhere. They attended volleyball matches, men’s basketball games, women’s basketball games – it didn’t matter. They drove to road games even as they approached their 80s. When they couldn’t drive themselves anymore, someone else gladly would.
I was in my first year at VCU in 2005 when I met the Hunts for the first time at the Jeff Capel Coaches Show. It was a VCU event on a day ending in ‘Y’, so naturally they wouldn’t miss it. My wife and I talked with the ever-approachable couple and were struck by their inviting personalities and buoyant enthusiasm. After more than 50 years together, they still doted on one another. Recently married, we marveled at them.
“They were a package deal,” said Gordon McDougall, VCU Associate Vice President for Alumni Relations. “If you’re in a relationship, you hope that when you’re at that stage of your life you have the love and respect for each other that they did.”
There was no pretense with Gene Hunt. He was an intellectual, a lifelong educator, a distinguished professor and a Ph.D., but he never talked over you. He was generous with both his time and his wisdom, but seemed to enjoy listening to others. He was just as charitable with praise. He stopped me numerous times to tell me he enjoyed my writing. I wasn’t the only one.
“For many obvious reasons I’ve considered him to be my Ram grandfather,” said friend and fellow VCU fan Chris Crowley. “He was everything you’d want in a grandparent. He was kind and generous and always happy to chat, but never pushy.”
Gene Hunt was Mr. VCU. While his love of VCU Basketball dates back five decades and is well-documented, it was just the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Hunt loved Virginia Commonwealth University, the institution. He treasured what it was, but was inspired by what it could become.
He held two degrees from Richmond Professional Institute and happily accepted a professorship in the School of Business when VCU formed in 1968. Although he had been teaching at the University of Iowa, an established and distinguished institution, he jumped at the chance to return to Richmond to help build something special at VCU. As a professor he was known to be passionate and engaging. He was firm, but also fair. His retirement in 1996 hardly diminished his affiliation with the university. If anything, it allowed Hunt more time to promote and advance and love VCU.
He served on the VCU Alumni Association Board of Directors, the RPI Alumni Council and as the chairman of the Retired Faculty Council. VCU President Dr. Michael Rao presented Dr. Hunt with the Presidential Medallion this fall in recognition of his service to the university.
“There are a lot of people who fall in love with part of VCU, and he wasn’t like that,” Crowley said. “If somebody asked, he would give himself to any part of the university.
McDougall says it was Hunt that pushed for the inclusion of “RPI” when VCU updated its seal.
In recent years, friends helped the Hunts travel to VCU Men’s Basketball games. During VCU’s Final Four run in 2011, McDougall walked the Hunts to their car following the Rams’ upset of Kansas and drove them back to their hotel.
“That’s probably my best memory,” McDougall said. “He was almost overcome by it. It was almost too much for him. You could see it. Just being with them after the game and just that sense of accomplishment. He was proud not just of the team, but that so many people would know about his university.”
The university will remember Dr. Hunt as a nearly lifelong supporter of its ideals. But on a personal level, people will remember him for his ebullient spirit and a lifetime of friendships.
Crowley recalls traveling to the NCAA Tournament in Buffalo in 2007 with his wife and the late Eric Clark. When Clark’s van broke down, he says it was the Hunts that passed the hat and raised about $600 for repairs.
“I try to be as selfless as I can, but I pale in comparison to what they’ve done,” Crowley said.
“I think the gift he had was that Gene genuinely appreciated people,” McDougall said. “I think it’s one of the reasons, along with his intellect, that he was such a great professor, because he really engaged with his students. He wasn’t distant to anyone.”
A ubiquitous presence on campus, Dr. Hunt spoke with a contagious enthusiasm and became a revered figure within the VCU community over the years, but typically avoided the spotlight.
“Gene never self-promoted. He never pushed me to do anything for him,” McDougall said. “One thing he did want was, if there was a game or event. He wanted to be there.”