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He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

Remembering Dave Hunter: father, husband, friend, philanthropist, entrepreneur
Author: Matthew St. Amand
Photographer: Various
9 months ago
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He was the businessman who spoke with a sports announcer’s voice. The sales guru who believed in mutually beneficial transactions. He was as quick with a joke as he was with a rant, a compliment, or a heartfelt expression of empathy depending on the situation. People enjoyed sharing their good news with him because his enthusiasm made even the smallest turns of good fortune glow that much brighter.

Dave Hunter.

No one who knew him would dispute that Dave Hunter had superpowers. His ability to connect with people was a rare and valuable gift. Dave was as comfortable mingling with millionaires on the golf course as he was with dudes in the sports bar, or acquaintances he encountered at the mall.

Another superpower of Dave’s was his ability to live with an unguarded heart. No matter who he was with, no matter the occasion, his feelings were plain to everyone around him. Dave had ambitions, he loved his record collection, his drums, and appreciated the baubles and luxuries of life, but the thing he cared most about was people. His family was his treasure.

On November 2, 2021, Dave posted a photograph on Facebook showing a human form lying beneath a tattered sleeping bag on a park bench. He wrote: “If you think homelessness is just a ‘downtown problem’, think again.  It’s 2 degrees out and it was likely colder during the early morning hours… I took this photo to bring awareness to this heartbreaking situation. This photo was taken a few minutes ago on the corner of Eleventh St and Notre Dame in Belle River.”

He posted soon after: “I’m going to find this person right now !!”

He enabled a Donate button on the post and raised $425 for Goodfellows that day. That was just a few minutes at the computer keyboard for Dave in a day filled with meaningful interactions.

Although Dave was known to and beloved by hundreds—if not thousands—of people, nobody knew him better than his wife, Shawna, and his daughter, Maddie, who kindly consented to be interviewed for this article.

In speaking of her first memory of her dad, Maddie says: “Dave took me to a Hillary Duff concert. I think I was about Sam’s age… about six or seven.”

She continues, remembering: “He took me along to everything, that’s why I feel like I follow in his footsteps. When he had one of the launch parties, or The Drive Magazine had a wrap party, I was always there running around. He made me introduce myself to everybody. That was non-negotiable.”

Dave grew up in Sarnia and moved to Windsor at age twenty. His first ambition was to become a police constable, so he studied Sociology and Criminology at the University of Windsor.

“He worked all kinds of jobs when he first came to Windsor,” says Shawna. “He was working at an oil change place. He worked at Danny’s back in the day—as a waiter. He was a DJ at Koko Pellie’s Lounge.”

He had another job, as well. “He worked for a company in Windsor that removed dead bodies. He did this to gain experience and make himself a better candidate as a police officer. He always wanted to help people.”

There is no doubt that Dave would have been an exceptional police constable.

“He was way too creative, though,” Shawna adds. “He needed to use his creative side more.”

So, Dave became an entrepreneur.

In 2000, Dave and his business partner, Mark Long, bought The Drive Magazine from its founder, artist/photographer, Kevin Kavanagh. Selling ad space in his own publication, Dave found his stride and worked his sales/marketing magic to turn the magazine into the talk of Windsor-Essex.

Five years later, he was named Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the Windsor Chamber of Commerce.

The Drive Magazine was his baby,” Shawna says. “He had all these visions. If he wasn’t satisfied with an issue, he’d come up with an idea to shake things up that would get people’s attention.”

In 2017, the magazine came to a crossroads. In an article written about the 20th anniversary of The Drive Magazine (penned by this writer), Dave said: “I got The Drive to a certain point, but the ad revenue wasn’t as fluid as it once was, and I was stuck at a standstill.”

That’s when Paul St. Pierre, owner of Landscape Effects—and longtime friend of Dave’s—entered the picture. He wanted to have a voice in Windsor and thought The Drive provided that.

            “I didn’t want to sell,” Dave said during our interview, “but if I wanted to get to the next level, I had to accept that I couldn’t do it alone. Paul had the vision.”

“Paul was the perfect business partner for Dave,” Shawna says, looking back on that time. “He loved Dave’s ideas. Paul kept him going. They met every morning—not just about work but life in general. They were each other’s biggest supporters.”

In late 2019, seeking a new challenge, Dave left The Drive Magazine and worked in construction sales until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In 2021, Paul brought Dave back to the magazine as a partner.

Shawna continues: “When Paul did that, it changed Dave’s life. I remember when Paul came over to our house and said to Dave: ‘You need to be here with us!’”

Although the pandemic halted his career in construction sales, Dave wondered if returning to The Drive was the right move.

He spoke to Shawna about it.

“First thing I said was: ‘You need to do this!’” she remembers. “He was hesitant, wondering if he could still do it after being away from the magazine for a time. Wondered if he still ‘had it.’ I assured him that he did. He took the opportunity and had no regrets. He was so happy and motivated in his job. He loved his team.”

Breanne McGinty was a part of that team, one of the lucky souls who interacted with Dave daily. She recalls: “Dave was the best boss and always knew how to make me laugh. He was tough on commitments but always looking to have fun and make the best of the workday. We used to play Eye Spy while driving around Windsor and Essex County!”

The Drive Magazine was a reflection of Dave Hunter. He brought numerous intangible qualities into every human interaction. Nobody interviewed for this article could put their finger on how, exactly, Dave did what he did. The consensus was that he loved people and had an exceptional gift as a communicator.

When asked when she realized her father had a special gift for connecting with people, Maddie said: “That didn’t come until my teenage years. I found that when I started running into problems that I didn’t know how to solve, he was my go-to guy. He always knew exactly who to call, who to reach out to and ask for help. And I was like: ‘Oh, so Dave knows everybody!’”

An early lesson Dave taught Maddie was: “Nobody owes you anything. It’s entirely up to you to make things happen.”

When Maddie needed help with a situation, Dave certainly “had a guy” but he sought to teach his daughter self-sufficiency. “He would point me in the right direction,” Maddie recalls. “He would send me someone’s phone number or email address, and I’d ask him: ‘Can you just call them?’ He’d say: ‘No I’m busy. You call them.’ Now that I’m older, following in his footsteps, it ended up helping tremendously. I’m quite thankful for that.”

Dave’s son, six-year-old Sam, began learning the lesson of self-sufficiency and pushing the boundaries of one’s comfort zone.

“Dave and Sammy were best friends,” Maddie says. “Dave was always making him do new things. Sammy is six and he has these little irrational fears… he tends to be on the shy side, so Dad pushed him out of his comfort zone with little things. They were at the carnival, one time, and Dad said they were going on the Ferris wheel. Sammy said: ‘I’m not going on that!’ And Dad said: ‘Yes you are.’ They rode the Ferris wheel and Sammy was so glad he did it.”

There is no question Dave’s personality is what set him apart in business. He was the Michael Jordan of sales and networking.

“ADHD was his superpower!” says Maddie.

Personality without substance, however, will take someone only so far. Dave had tremendous business skills. No one knew that better than Paul St. Pierre:

“Dave had an innate ability to spot opportunities and anticipate market trends. He possessed a keen eye for identifying gaps, and his desire to separate himself enabled him to craft speedy solutions that resonated with the team and our readers.”

Paul continues: “Dave had an unwavering determination and resilience. He navigated challenges and setbacks with grace, turning obstacles into steppingstones for advancement. His adaptability to change direction on a dime, and his willingness to embrace whatever was thrown at him, brought on many successes.”

Paul goes on to note that Dave’s exceptional business acumen was in a league all its own. It was mostly unconventional, but combined with his passion and drive, it propelled him to entrepreneurial greatness. He left a mark on the business landscape and in the publishing world.

Dave also left his mark among charities in Essex County. Dave’s endless energy and generosity are legend. Shawna recalls that even during the dark days of COVID-19, Dave delivered meals from Spagos to area hospitals to feed front-line workers.

No fundraiser was closer to Dave’s heart than the annual Ride to Survive, which he founded in the early 2000s.

The very first incarnation of the ride was called “The Drive to Survive” and involved gargantuan rides spanning multiple days and covering hundreds of kilometers. A short column in Issue #16 of The Drive, published sometime in 2002, stated: “This years 550 kilometer bike trip will take 10 riders from Hamilton up to Niagara-on-the-Lake and back to Windsor traveling along Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Last year Dave Hunter and Mike Pula travelled across parts of Southwestern Ontario to raise money for Transition to Betterness. The pair raised $20,000.”

The Ride to Survive went dormant in the later 2000s as Dave and The Drive weathered their own vicissitudes. When the Ride was re-established in recent years, it was scaled back, tracing a route within Essex County: confined to one late September weekend. The main benefactor of the Ride is the unabashedly wonderful Transition to Betterness (T2B). Established in 1997, T2B provides comfort to patients and their families impacted by life-altering illnesses. The number of people helped by T2B probably surpasses the number of kilometers biked in every Ride to Survived combined.

“The Ride to Survive meant a lot to Dave,” Maddie says. “It was very near and dear to his heart. He started it after a close friend’s mother passed away. That gave it more of a sentimental value to him, more motivation to get it done.”

A T2B press release states: “Over the past three years alone, The Ride to Survive raised almost $600,000, a testament to Dave’s leadership.”

Considering the multitasking and organizational skills needed to pull such events together—along with his other philanthropic works throughout Essex County—had somebody told this writer that Dave was a graduate of Harvard Business, I would have readily believed it. In fact, Dave’s start in life was humbler than most people would guess. There were no Whistler ski slopes in his boyhood, only the snow drifts of Sarnia. On Facebook Dave once posted: “My childhood trifecta!” along with a photo of Matchbox replicas of the Dukes of Hazzard General Lee, the Fall Guy’s pick-up truck, and the A-Team’s iconic black van with the cool red stripe.

Dave grew up watching professional wrestling and had a special fondness for ’80s “hair bands,” such as Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, and Ratt.

Music was one of the primary elements that he and his wife Shawna connected with when they first met.

Dave and Shawna met when she was doing Advertising and Business Management at St. Clair College. Dave had been perusing Facebook, one day, when he saw a photo of Shawna—whom he had not yet met—at the same auto mechanic’s shop where he brought his car. Intrigued, Dave contacted the mechanic and said: “Who is this girl and how do you know her?”

“Shawna Pelletier,” the mechanic said.

When Dave expressed an interest in meeting Shawna, wondering at the chances of getting together with her, the mechanic replied: “You’d make a crazy couple!”

Which is a lesson for all: never discount a mechanic’s opinion of the potential for romantic relationships.

Seeing Shawna’s qualifications, Dave privately messaged her, asking if she was interested in working in sales with him. They met for coffee a few times, and soon after went to dinner. Shawna was Dave’s date at a friend’s wedding. It wasn’t until the first Beaverfest—an event organized by Dave—that he and Shawna became official as a couple.

“I was bartending the event,” Shawna says. “Dave saw me and pulled me out of there and we went on stage together. We never left each other’s side after that.”

Their first weeks together was a process of learning how similar their lives and experiences were:

Shawna and Dave had each had a daughter when they were twenty years old.

“We both drove the same kind of car—Volkswagens,” Shawna says. “They were the same colour, same year. Inside the cars, we had mostly the same CDs.”

More than that, just as Dave had done, Shawna once studied Sociology and Criminology at the University of Windsor, and then moved over to business and marketing courses at St. Clair College.

How had their paths not crossed before this?

“Dave had ten years on me,” Shawna says. “When we met, it was literally like sparks flew! Within a month we were buying a home together. We were inseparable. It was just life in the fast lane. Everything was fun. We’ve been together for almost thirteen years.”

As Maddie describes her father: “Dave was always so extra!”

“It drove me nuts at times!” Shawna says, smiling. “He was constantly on his phone or having me jot down things in his phone. We’d be driving and he’d notice a new business somewhere and he’d say: ‘Write this number down for me!’ There was never a dull moment!”

She continues: “He loved doing the charity work because it made him feel that he had a purpose.”

In recent times, Dave posted on his Facebook page: “The two most important days in your life: the day you were born and the day you discover why.”

“Dave’s purpose in life was to help others,” Shawna states. “To make people smile. Something I heard so much during and after his funeral was ‘Dave helped me through hard times!’ or “He always made me laugh, if I was having a bad day!’”

That way of life started with his own family.

“He was a huge movie buff,” Maddie remembers. “We lived exclusively by movie quotes. He always had the best movie quotes from the most random movies at the greatest times, then he showed me the clip and the context, and he would belly laugh.”

Dave also had a treasure trove of movie theme songs on his phone, which he played when he felt certain life-moments needed to be accentuated.

“Often, he was the only person who appreciated it,” Maddie notes. “He played the theme from the movie Rocky when he and Shawna brought Sammy home for the first time.”

Maddie recalls many times, coming home, and Dave greeting her in his Hannibal Lecter voice: “Helloooooo Clariiiiiice!”

Dave shared his sense of humour publicly, as well, posting on Facebook: “Shawna just stopped me and said: ‘You weren’t even listening to me, were you?’ And I thought… ‘That’s a pretty weird way to start a conversation!’”

Dave, however, was the king of shifting gears, he could be hilarious one moment, and then suddenly quite heartfelt in the next.

To Shawna he once wrote on Facebook: “Love isn’t always perfect. It isn’t a fairytale or story book, and it doesn’t come easy. Love is overcoming obstacles, facing challenges, fighting to be together, holding on and never letting go.

“It is a short word, easy to spell, difficult to define it and impossible to live without. Love is work, and most of all, love is realizing that every hour, every minute, and every second was worth it, because we did it together.”

On Sammy’s birthday, Dave posted a photo of his son on Facebook with the following: “This little boy changed my life at the most pivotal point when I needed it the most. You’re going to be something very special. Happy 6th birthday Sam I am… rock out hard little one.”

“Dave was such an active father,” Shawna says. “He took Sammy to his hockey practice, drum lessons, took him for haircuts.”

She then recalls: “Dave was scared when he first learned I was pregnant. He wondered about being a forty-three-year-old dad. He worried that he was too old. But when he first saw the ultrasound, Dave was so excited. His face completely changed, and he had the biggest smile. He now had this huge purpose. He wanted a son so bad—we both had girls. When he found out it was a boy—‘There it is!’” Dave had said pointing at the ultrasound that revealed his baby’s gender.

“He picked me up and was holding me,” Shawna continues. “Our family was complete. Dave picked out Sam’s name right away. Everything changed. He was all smiles. We couldn’t wait.”

Nine months later when Shawna went into labour, Dave posted a picture of her belly on Facebook—over Shawna’s vociferous objections—followed by an animated gif of the Ace Ventura football meme.

After Sam’s birth, Dave couldn’t keep himself from hugging Shawna and holding up Sam, saying over and over: “He’s so perfect!”

“He found it so different being a father at that age,” Shawna says. “We weren’t kids. We were in a loving relationship. We were settled. Every morning he would sit and stare at Sam in his crib.”

It took no time for Dave to pass his love of music onto Sam. When Sam was big enough to hold drumsticks, Dave sat him on the living room floor, set up an array of pillows to simulate a drumkit, and then put on a Phil Collins concert video. Soon enough, Sam was setting up the pillow-drumkit and requesting the Phil Collins video to drum along with.

Watching his son drum, one evening, Dave remarked to Shawna: “This is what life is all about, right here, watching him do this. I could do this forever.”

Sam’s favourite song at one time was Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry.” Dave was very proud that Sam could name the artist and song title, most times, when they listened to the radio while driving in the car.

Occasionally—very occasionally—there could be a little too much of a good thing. Shawna would roll in from an exhausting day at work to find Dave and Sam in the house, music cranked, drums going, a veritable onslaught of noise and activity.

Observing the fracas, Shawna would say: “I need to lay down for twenty minutes.”

As a stepfather to Shawna’s daughter, Kaelyn Trudel, Dave was Dave—he offered advice when it was needed, elicited eye rolls with his sense of humour and movie quotes. There is a butting-of-heads that occurs in any family, but Shawna recalls Dave being very supportive of Kaelyn who recently told him that she wanted to go into nursing.

“Among the last things he said to her was: ‘Kiddo, go for your dream!’ He tried to keep her motivated,” Shawna says. “He told her: ‘You can do anything you put your mind to.’ And Kaelyn was thankful for having him around. Like any family, they had their ups-and-downs, but the birth of Sam brought everyone together. Maddie and Kaelyn were no longer two teenagers off in their own worlds!

“Dave did a really good job,” Shawna continues. “Kaelyn looked up to him. She saw how happy I was with Dave, the life we were building together as a family. She lived with us full-time, and Dave was always joking, and Kaelyn was always laughing at him. She was there for him after Bo passed away, asking if he was all right.”

The jokes and high energy, however, could not keep the world from intruding upon life in Stoney Point. In March of this year, Dave lost his brother Sam “Bo” Hunter. This is when living with an unguarded heart exacts an excruciating toll. In times of grief, people often say they experience it in waves. Grief counselors explain that this is the body’s doing, doling the trauma in intervals, because no one could survive the actual full dose. Dave’s grief was immense, overwhelming. He was the person who found Bo, and the experience scarred him in ways he could not describe. The loss rekindled the intense grief he experienced when his adoptive father, Sam Hunter, passed away some years before.

With the love and support of his family and friends—many of whom were also deeply affected by Bo’s passing—Dave waded through his grief; got himself to a point where he could take phone calls again, check on the progress of his magazines, get back to business in some manner.

Dave posted on Facebook: “I’m the type of flower that can still grow after a forest fire.”

In another post, he wrote: “Today is the tomorrow you talked about yesterday.”

Dave made everyday count.

“He loved his life,” Shawna says. “He loved talking about his childhood, about all the dumb things he did. He lived his life to the fullest. He enjoyed every bit of it. It’s as though it was all condensed into forty-eight years. He accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime.”

Although it was not apparent, Dave struggled with depression. He was so used to looking after others, Dave neglected his own mental well-being. He found solace in his own way, similar to what the ancient philosopher Plato advised when a friend commended him on his strength weathering difficult times. Plato said: “Hold fast to the things to which you already hold fast.” That’s what Dave did—he held fast to his family, to his friends, to music, to his work.

On Facebook, he regularly shared “proud dad” moments. One of the most recent ones occurred when his daughter, Maddie, passed the exam to receive her real estate license.

“When he started in real estate, I started at the same time,” Maddie says. “He rose at four a.m. to finish his schooling. When I told him that I had passed he wrote back: ‘That made my whole week!’”

Maddie goes on: “I joined Deerbrook to work with him. We planned to work together. He said: ‘We’ll have some Maddie-Daddy time! Let’s knock ’em dead, kid, working together!’ furthering our relationship, taking it to a more professional level.”

Then, on the morning of June 30, the unthinkable happened: Dave Hunter passed away. He had gone to sleep, and he did not wake up. The news was so sudden and shocking, to this day people who knew and loved Dave struggle to process it.

“It doesn’t feel real,” Shawna says.

Dave’s death occurred on a holiday long weekend, which seemed to slow news of the tragedy. Rumours and gossip filled the void: whispers suggesting that Dave committed suicide, that he died of a drug overdose. One bizarre AI app online created a barely coherent YouTube video stating Dave had died in a motorcycle accident. All these rumours are untrue. Dave went to sleep and he simply, incredibly, inexplicably didn’t wake up.

Dave’s absence is immense. Grief enters like floodwater through a breached levee.

When speaking on the radio about Dave in the days after his passing, this writer mentioned “The Three ‘E’s of Dave Hunter: Energy, Encouragement, Empathy.”

Where did that energy go?

“My life is changed forever,” Shawna says. “Something happens to you when you lose your spouse. Dave was so full of life, all the time and there is now a huge void, that energy is not here. That’s the toughest part… You cannot replace Dave Hunter.”

Then she smiles wistfully, tearfully: “I am going to miss even the smallest things. He brought me coffee every morning. I sometimes woke up to text messages saying how much he loved me. Even though he was in the house when he sent it, he wanted me to see that. Every morning I wake up now, there is no coffee at my bedside. That sounds kind of silly. It was the small things like that. He was so considerate.”

If he was ever afraid, Dave never let it stop him. If he had an ego, he used it as a surfboard rather than a Samurai sword—he went with the flow rather than simply hacking his way through difficult situations.

Although Dave—classic music fan that he was—would recognize the title of this tribute from the 1969 hit song by The Hollies, the quote “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” is much older than that. More than five decades before, in 1918, a little boy named Harold was abandoned at the famous Boys Town orphanage in Nebraska. Harold had polio and had difficulty going up and down the stairs. Several of the other boys in the home carried Harold up and down the stairs. Seeing this, one day, the person in charge of the orphanage asked one of the boys if carrying Harold was difficult. The boy replied: “He ain’t heavy… he’s my brother.”

That was Dave Hunter: carrying others with no thought about the cost to himself.

He was loved and admired by more people than he ever realized. Everyone who knew him will carry his memory until our own final days. Don’t worry, Dave, you’re not heavy, you’re our brother.

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