Smith: Hunnicutt will be remembered as friend, philanthropist

Published 10:00 am Friday, May 12, 2017

Sometimes life’s wrinkles smooth out, sometimes we rebound from pitfalls with no harm done; sometimes we catch a break when we least expect it as destiny’s river sends us merrily along, allowing us to flourish without trouble or woe.    Sometimes, however, some of us catch a stray bullet.

All of the above visited Dr. Pat Hunnicutt’s life.  The late Bulldog letterman enjoyed the idyllic life of a small town in the fifties as a kid and subsequently as an adult.   He was a man who was imbued with a love of sports.  There was overall perspective, too.   He underscored scholarship as much as end zone celebration.

He was raised to be a Bulldog.  He earned a scholarship from his father’s alma mater, he married his high school sweetheart, he became a successful dentist and was on  track to live happily ever after.

Then along came the stray bullet.  Four years ago, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Emotional devastation segued into a stiff upper lip.  He never sought sympathy.   He tried as best he could to live a normal life.  Countless friends came to see him, intent on cheering him up.   There was a reversal of form:  A dying man cheered up all visitors.

Pat had grown up in the embrace of a community where Friday Night Lights were the emotional sustenance equal to that of one’s daily bread.    When football season came around, this town became uplifted.   Nothing could have been more fulfilling in those times than playing for his colorful dad, William Oliver Hunnicutt, Sr., the unforgettable character for whom Pat was named.

“Daddy Coach,” the senior Hunnicutt became to his grandchildren.  Oliver was a doting grandfather who held sway with kids–both his direct descendants and those about town.   His personality and winning ways became an enriching experience for youth in the community.  Young boys coming along wanted to play for the Grangers.   Nobody identified with that notion more than the coach’s eldest son who would play the game as adroitly as he was coached, which would allow him to segue to the next level. Although signing him was not necessarily a coup.   Pat stood 5-9 and weighed 163 pounds, which meant that he had to get by on  intangibles—including quickness and guile; fortitude and intellect also figured into his success as an athlete.

LaGrange has always had a history that has connected its citizenry with leaders imbued with an historical, cultural and community bent.  LaGrange has always been keen on charitable causes.  The city gets its name from the estate of the wife of French General, du Motier Marquis de Lafayette, who helped George Washington win the Revolutionary War.   In 1825 on a national tour of the U. S., the general commented that the topography of the Troup County area was similar to the General’s estate in France.   Pat Hunnicutt thought that factoid was “neat.”

With energy, leadership and sophistication, LaGrange has always made itself attractive to business.    First came Callaway and Milliken and more recently Kia Motor Corporation.  Nobody touted LaGrange any harder than Pat, who chose to settle in his hometown after dental school to enjoy an encore of the good life of a small but exciting town, supporting the causes that would enhance the city’s future.  It was in his DNA to give back to his community and his alma mater.   He and his wife, Gail, are known throughout the state for their leadership and philanthropy on behalf of LaGrange and the University of Georgia.   LaGrange and Georgia loved him back.  Two days after his funeral, a local group announced that through a collective local effort there would be an annual awarding of a scholarship in Athens, named for the Hunnicutt’s.

Our parting shot requires that we hark back to that signature play he made on behalf of the Bulldogs against Georgia Tech in 1964.  It was a new era, with Vince Dooley taking over.

The lean years prior were tough emotionally for Pat and many of his teammates, but they saw a new day coming and quickly got on board, joyfully in lockstep with the new coaching staff.   Beating the arch enemy in the state became paramount with this group.

Tech was enjoying a three game winning streak upon arrival in Sanford Stadium Saturday after Thanksgiving, 1964.  In a hard fought encounter, Georgia was leading 7-0, late in the game, but Tech was driving with a touchdown and a two point conversation on the minds of the Jacket partisans.

After Tech passed mid field, the fullback, whose dad had played for Georgia, bucked across the line and met the Bulldog safetyman head on.  Pat Hunnicutt saved the day by putting his helmet right on the ball, separating it from the ball carrier.  Linebacker Leroy Dukes recovered.

That play alone paid for Hunnicutt’s athletic scholarship, but the University of Georgia, like the LaGrange community, would be blessed with continued residuals from the Hunnicutt family with the passing years.   Giving back!   That could have been the middle name for both Pat and Gail.   They have forever been “Dawgs for all seasons.”

Loran Smith is an athletic director at the University of Georgia.