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Former Crosby Mayor Hunter dies at 73

Those who knew Hunter beyond the controversial headlines will remember him for much more: his natural desire to help anyone in need, wise and well-placed advice, corny jokes and an abiding love for his city and its future.

Former Crosby Mayor Jim Hunter
Former two-time Crosby Mayor Jim Hunter.
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CROSBY — Former two-time Crosby Mayor Jim Hunter spent much of the last five years of his life embroiled in the legal system — first to fight against and ultimately prevail over seven criminal charges, and then in pursuit of vindication by way of a defamation suit over the handling of those cases.

But those who knew Hunter beyond the headlines will remember him for much more: his natural desire to help anyone in need, wise and well-placed advice, corny jokes and an abiding love for his city and its future. The 73-year-old died Wednesday, Aug. 17, after suffering from stage 5 kidney failure.

“He was so caring to people,” said daughter Tammy (Hunter) Fickett during a Thursday phone interview. “I mean, people either liked him or they didn’t. But Dad, he was always generous. He always tried to help give people food … and all the stuff that he did for Crosby. And going through so much, he stayed strong and he held to his beliefs.”

James Hunter
For the first time since being cleared on several criminal charges filed against him, James Hunter spoke publicly in 2019 during a brief press conference hosted by his attorney, Ed Shaw, at Shaw’s law office in Brainerd.
Jennifer Kraus / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Among his noteworthy acts of kindness were buying dozens of $50 grocery gift cards to hand out during the holidays each year, anonymously paying a senior citizen’s high water bill and providing equipment to help load and deliver boxes of food for the needy during the pandemic. His everyday actions also spoke to his desire to be a helper, friend Candi Cayton said, whether it be giving away money or offering people in dire straits favorable terms to rent an apartment or purchase a vehicle.

“He just, at times, was a very selfless person and did a lot of things and never expected anything in return,” Cayton said. “A lot of people, when they had car troubles or different things, they’d call him. Because they knew he would do it — in the middle of the night, anytime. He’d wake up and go help somebody.”

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Trommald Mayor Jim Hiller said his friendship with Hunter developed over time and many restaurant meals together. This summer, Hiller accompanied Hunter on a two-week road trip to Colorado, where Hunter was born and later returned to live in adulthood. Hunter sought one last visit to say goodbye to friends, knowing his time was limited after his decision not to undergo dialysis.

Crosby Mayor Jim Hunter is pictured at an April meeting of the Crosby City Council. Zach Kayser/Brainerd Dispatch
Crosby Mayor Jim Hunter is pictured at a meeting of the Crosby City Council.
Zach Kayser / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Hiller extolled Hunter’s good-hearted nature and desire to help people, even when others might view them with skepticism. He said Hunter’s own tumultuous, impoverished childhood informed the man he later became.

“Because of the poverty that he lived in — I mean, he would tell me how he used to starve as a child — that’s what kind of put the impression on him to help people,” Hiller said. “He didn’t want to see anybody go hungry.”

The businessman described as a “jack of all trades” first became mayor following his victory in the 2016 election — an achievement that came as a surprise to some in the city, Hiller said.

Just two months into his two-year term in office, however, the Crow Wing County Attorney’s Office filed felony charges against Hunter following an investigation by the Crosby Police Department. The charges alleged second-degree assault, theft by swindle, receiving stolen property and unlawful gambling, along with a gross misdemeanor charge for selling vehicle financing without a license. Another charge for falsely reporting a crime came Hunter’s way later in 2017, and soon thereafter, the embattled leader resigned .

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During the next two years, Hunter and Attorney Ed Shaw worked to clear his name in the cases stemming from a contentious business deal in which the accuser said he lost $90,000 because of Hunter’s shifty tactics. Three separate Crow Wing County juries disagreed, acquitting Hunter of some of the charges. The rest were dismissed , putting an end to the criminal cases in April 2019.

“He was certainly a person with a lot of dignity even in the face of serious adversity,” Shaw said by phone Thursday. “ … Throughout that process, he never had a bad word to say about anybody. Never lost his cool, was always polite, was always professional. Never had a bad thing to say about the prosecution, even though they were trying to convict him and send him to prison for things that he flat out didn’t do. And I could say that 100% conclusively.

“The amount of dignity he showed was more than a lot of people would have, and it might have been more than I would have been able to. So I’ve kind of always remembered that.”

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Shaw said the legal battle damaged Hunter’s reputation and made his life miserable. Once the criminal proceedings concluded, Shaw and Hunter took to civil court to make the case for defamation against the city of Crosby and two Crosby police officers. In the meantime, Hunter won the race for Crosby mayor yet again in 2020, topping a field of four to return to the leadership position.

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Crosby residents who want Mayor Jim Hunter to resign, left, and supporters of Crosby Mayor Jim Hunter, right, displayed their signs in 2017 outside Crosby City Hall.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

The defamation case dragged on through March of this year, when Hunter and the defendants reached a settlement agreement to dismiss the case with prejudice. By that time, Hunter had in August 2021 resigned his mayoral post again as his failing health made it difficult for him to continue his duties.

“When he was reelected, the community spoke, you know,” Fickett said. “And so that was huge, and it was horrible to see him have to then say, ‘My health just won’t keep up with me.’ He didn’t want to be half at anything, you know. If he was going to do something, he wanted to make sure that he put all effort into it.”

As his days dwindled, Hunter ensured no one in his life would be saddled with the responsibilities of planning his memorial service. In one last act of generosity, he wanted those who attended to eat a full, hot plate instead of cold sandwiches.

“I think he just wanted to take the stress off of everybody else,” Fickett said. “And that’s who he was.”

Hunter is survived by his five children: Fickett, Deanna (Scott) Solie, Connie (John) Hutchins, Jim (Autumn) Hunter and Aubrey (Jared) Michaels; good friend Cayton; 15 grandchildren; many foster grandchildren; and even more great-grandchildren, extended family members and friends.

He was preceded in death by his wife Jean and sister Shirley Calderone.

A celebration of life will be noon to 3 p.m. Aug. 28 at the Ironton American Legion Post No. 443.

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CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Related Topics: CROSBYEVERYDAY PEOPLE
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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