T. Willard Hunter dies at 93; minister and author

T. Willard Hunter dies at 93; minister and author
Although as a minister he gave short sermons -- "My uncle once told me 'No souls are saved after 20 minutes' " -- T. Willard Hunter often gave long speeches, including those commemorating the Fourth of July. (Los Angeles Times)
T. Willard Hunter, a minister, author and dedicated orator who once spoke continuously for more than 34 hours to commemorate the Fourth of July, died June 29 at his home in Claremont. He was 93 and had been in failing health for several months, said his wife, Mary Louise.

Hunter formally launched his effort to revive the tradition of Fourth of July oratory three decades ago in Claremont, where he lived for 50 years.

He founded Claremont's Fourth of July citizens oratory program in 1977 and was its most enthusiastic participant, commanding a platform in the park to recite the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and extemporize on great American patriots, especially Abraham Lincoln.

Dressed in a 19th century frock coat with a black string tie and crisp white shirt, he delivered his public speeches about America's founding principles at most of the country's major historic sites, including the Statue of Liberty, the Gettysburg cemetery and Paul Revere's Old North Church. In 1982, outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he set a Guinness world record with a Fourth of July oration that lasted 34 hours and 8 minutes.

"Today everyone is pretty much out for himself and we are told that that's the way it is," he told The Times in 1984, shortly before a Fourth of July engagement at the legendary Speakers Corner in London's Hyde Park. "It seems to me that's a total opposite from people who did the big things, who were prepared to put their life on the line for something important. . . . 'Give me liberty or give me death.' You just don't hear people say that anymore."

A believer in the lessons of history, Hunter also conceived an unusual event to mark the birth of Los Angeles: a nine-mile walk from the San Gabriel Mission to Olvera Street that retraced the last leg of a journey that the city's founding families completed on Sept. 4, 1781. He organized the first annual walk with descendants of the founding families to celebrate Los Angeles' bicentennial in 1981.

"This is going to sound corny, but he was driven by a desire to improve the world," said Joseph C. Hough, interim president of Claremont Graduate University, a close friend for 30 years. "He loved this country . . . believed in it until he died."

Hunter's booming style of speech "would have challenged Whitefield," Hough added, referring to the 18th century evangelist George Whitefield, known for his thundering voice, which could reach thousands of people in an open square.

Hunter was born Sept. 22, 1915, in Emmett, Idaho, and grew up in Northfield, Minn. The son of an English professor and a homemaker, he began his public speaking career at 9 when he recited a poem for his mother's club. At 15, he was reciting the Gettysburg Address. At Northfield's Carleton College, he became a state debate champion.

After graduating from Carleton in 1936, he studied at Harvard Law School but, as the world's major powers headed into war, he changed course and entered Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts. He also joined Moral Re-Armament, an international movement founded by the Rev. Frank N.D. Buchman that sought to avert war through spiritual and moral reawakening. Hunter crisscrossed the country for 18 years to spread the philosophy of the movement.

He later held administrative positions at Macalester College in Minnesota, the Claremont University Center, Claremont Graduate School and the Claremont School of Theology. From 1966 to 1970 he was executive vice president of the Independent Colleges of Southern California.

He also wrote several books, including "The Spirit of Charles Lindbergh" (1993), about his friend, the legendary aviator. The Washington Post praised the book as "a rewardingly personal portrait."

In 1970, Hunter became an ordained Congregational minister and over the next decade preached at churches in New England, California and Hawaii.

His sermons, unlike his patriotic speech-making, aimed for brevity because of the advice of a relative. "My uncle," he recalled, "once told me 'No souls are saved after 20 minutes.' "

In addition to his wife, Hunter is survived by a son, Willard M., of Eureka, Calif.; a brother; a sister and four grandchildren.