His dear colleague died but had one last gift
I couldn’t think of a better day to tell you about my friend Don Hunt.
He has been gone almost 10 years now and it still hurts, just as it does sometimes to look at my mother’s pictures. She died in 2015, three years after suffering a paralyzing stroke.
This is a story about love and friendship. And a reminder to all on this Thanksgiving Day to be grateful for those who touch us in profound and unexpected ways. Don and my mother never met, but they would be linked in ways I could never imagine.
Don and I sat next to each other as editors on The Times’ Metro desk and quickly bonded as fellow Texans who loved Willie Nelson, the Hill Country and mesquite barbecue. To this day, I’ve never known anyone who could consume so much pulled pork in one sitting.
We shared other traits. A mutual friend once declared us both “profoundly cheap.” We used to joke about whose well-worn wallet had the most adhesive tape, whose shoes the most holes and who drove the oldest car. My Toyota Corolla was 15 years old, his Honda Accord five years older.
But once you really got to know Don, you learned that he was a connoisseur of good living, a lover of expensive cigars, good wine and the opera. He also cherished the beauty of the American West and frequently visited its national parks.
A native of Austin, he was a proud graduate of the University of Texas and a rabid Longhorns football fan. His wardrobe consisted mostly of UT apparel — burnt orange hats, jackets and T-shirts. Even his bedspread was emblazoned with “University of Texas Longhorns.”
It had not been an easy life. Don’s father, Darrell A. Hunt, died in 1947 trying unsuccessfully to rescue his 11-year-old brother-in-law from drowning. Don was 3 at the time. His mother, Opal Marguerite Hunt, raised him and his younger brother, Mike, alone.
Opal was determined to make a good life for them. A stenographer, she worked her way up to administrative secretary in the Texas Welfare Department, bought her own home in a working-class neighborhood and saw both her boys graduate from UT.
“It was very rough bringing up two sons on her own,” said Phil Worley, a cousin who was more like a brother to Don and Mike. “To be hit with something like that so young, it was quite an accomplishment to keep going and to be successful. Don always admired her for that.”
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Some of my fondest memories with Don were enjoying some great Texas music together.
At the Hollywood Bowl we saw Willie Nelson, who to us represented a new Texas cool, a country singer-songwriter whose phrasing was more jazz club than honky-tonk. I can still hear the mournful strains of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and the galloping rhythm of “On the Road Again.” We also saw the legendary Texas band the Flatlanders at the Troubadour.
During some of our outings we talked about his wife, Frances — they’d been separated for years but remained close — and our mothers. Don went to great lengths to take care of Opal toward the end of her life. He would fly home several times a year to visit her in a nursing home, sometimes sleeping on the floor by her bed.
I was also close to my mother, Delfina Valdez Lozano. I was the middle child of nine and, at 18, the oldest and still living at home when my parents divorced.
As hard as life could be sometimes, my mother never complained. After the divorce, she ran a child-care business out of our house. It seemed like she raised half the neighborhood. And she loved it.
On our days off, Don and I would often go on long walks. After one particular hike in August 2011, he called to tell me he wasn’t feeling well. It wasn’t just fatigue, he said.
He went to the doctor the next day and began a series of tests. A few days later, he called to give me the news.
It was cancer. Eight brain tumors, as well as cancer of the esophagus. Don, whose mother had died a few weeks earlier, was told he had six months to live.
We both cried and I told him I loved him.
Don had had one close call before. A few years earlier, after initially believing he had an ear infection, he was stunned to learn that he had suffered a brain aneurysm. The doctors told him the weak blood vessel could rupture at any moment and they needed to operate that day. He spent a long night in surgery.
The next morning, I went to see him in the intensive care unit. He woke up and, without his glasses, he squinted to make out who was hovering over his bed. I leaned in closer and said, “I bet you didn’t think you would see me in heaven.” We both laughed.
Don always had a good sense of humor, and I got a kick out of his braying hee-haw laugh. He told me that if he had to pick someone to play him in a movie, he’d pick Don Knotts. I think he owned every episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” in which Knotts played the bumbling but lovable Deputy Barney Fife. When Knotts got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Don was there.
But his own life bore little resemblance to that of his comedic hero. In his last weeks of life, Don never lost his strength of character or his dignity. I’m sure there were times when he was scared or depressed, but he never showed it.
I remember sitting with Don on one of his final days, watching the New Orleans Saints play the Detroit Lions on television. He turned to me and said, “I’m really going to miss football.” And that was it. We went back to watching the game.
At one point, he turned to me and said, ‘I’m really going to miss football.’ And that was it. We went back to watching the game.
Three days later, Jan. 10, 2012, a friend called to tell me that Don had only a few hours left and that if I wanted to see him, I better go now.
I rushed to his Sierra Madre home, where taped to the front door was a sheet of paper with a message in large block letters: Do Not Resuscitate. Don lay in a rented hospital bed upstairs, and occasionally I could hear him moaning in pain, his breathing labored. His nurse administered more morphine, and soon the house was quiet again.
A few close friends gathered around his kitchen table downstairs to wait it out.
About 9 p.m., Don’s breathing had faded to a whisper. The nurse suggested it was time to turn off his ventilator. Don’s brother, Mike, was on a flight from Houston, but luckily, I managed to catch him during a layover in Las Vegas. I told him what the nurse advised.
“I think that’s the right thing to do,” Mike said, knowing Don would be gone before he arrived.
The four of us there gathered around Don’s bed to say our goodbyes, to hold him and to tell him how much we loved him. “You’re the best friend anyone could ever have,” said a tearful Beth Troy, a Times copy editor and one of Don’s closest friends.
We told him it was OK to let go. We didn’t know if he could hear us. He had been in a drug-induced sleep for hours. He lay awkwardly, his body turned slightly to the left, a stiff hand curled at his face. His skin was a pasty white and his light brown hair matted with sweat. The only moving object in the room was the second hand on the clock by the bed; the only sound, the low hum of the ventilator.
A moment passed. A sudden click from the ventilator. Then silence.
Five months later, I was in Houston visiting my mother. She had turned 80 on Jan. 12, two days after Don died, and I was determined to spend more time with her. I had gotten up early to take a walk to avoid the stifling summer heat, and when I returned I was surprised to find her bedroom door still closed.
I hesitated for a moment before opening the door, because I sensed that, once I did, our family’s life would never be the same. And it wasn’t.
The stroke had left my mom partially paralyzed, and except for a few words — yes and no, mostly — unable to talk. She could comprehend things, but it was unclear how much.
She had been the loving spirit in our family, the one who kept the fragile peace, the bright light in our little universe.
Now that light was gone. We were on our own and argued about her care, tensions fueled by the petty rivalries of nine siblings.
After more than a year of hoping and praying she would recover more of her cognitive abilities, we were told there was no chance her condition would improve. So we made the painful decision to place her in hospice care. This meant turning off her heart defibrillator.
But Delfina Valdez Lozano had defied the odds all her life and was not going to surrender easily to death or God.
Like many women of her generation, she never went to college, never learned to drive and never knew a life without work. Her single greatest talent was for living, her life was her art. She loved to laugh, she loved to talk, and she loved to cook because she loved people.
“The skillet makes the home,” she often said. And so her house was always filled with friends and family, often united in some raucous birthday or holiday celebration.
She was the most selfless person I’ve ever known. Even after they were long divorced, she took care of my father after his heart surgery. It was no small irony that a woman who sacrificed her whole life for others suffered from an enlarged heart.
For her, it was simple: Love was action. It was about the contributions we make to one another’s lives.
In the end, my mother would live 18 more months, longer than her doctors and caregivers ever imagined.
We had finally found a small nursing home in a good location, with good doctors, but a problem loomed: The Medicare money was running out, and the facility didn’t accept Medicaid. I dreaded another family fight and looking for another nursing home.
A few months earlier, I had received a surprise call from Mike Hunt. “Did you know Don left you something in his will?” he said. No, I told him, I did not. He offered no details and told me I would hear from the estate.
One day at home, I was tossing out junk mail when I noticed a letter from a San Diego law firm. I couldn’t imagine what it was about but thought I’d better open it. Inside was a check for $100,000.
I immediately sat down and called Mike. “There must be some mistake,” I said.
“No,” he said. “Don wanted you to have this money.”
Don never even hinted he was going to do this. But when I think back on it now, it makes perfect sense. Don was way ahead of me.
When my mother’s Medicare funds were exhausted, she did not need to move. She died about the same time Don’s money ran out.
On my mother’s grave marker are carved the words “Only Love Endures.”
Don certainly proved that to be true. When I think of him now, at Thanksgiving, my mind turns to the first line of “David Copperfield,” where David wonders whether he will turn out to be the hero of his own life.
Don Hunt turned out to be the hero of my life. So, if you’re listening, Don, I just want to say thank you for thinking of me in your most difficult hour and to tell you that I still miss and love you dearly, my friend.
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