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May 23, 2017 5:17 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Lubin Hunter Reflects On Life On Cusp Of 100th Birthday

Lubin Hunter and his daughter Roberta Hunter traveled to Washington D.C. with other East End Veterans's Honor Flight in April/May, 2014.
May 23, 2017 5:29 PM

One day last month, Lubin Hunter needed to go to the bank.So he called up his son, Wickham Hunter, and asked him to swing by his house on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation to pick him up and take him into town. The younger Mr. Hunter took a little too long arriving for his father’s tastes, so the elder Mr. Hunter grabbed his keys and drove himself.

His son showed up at the house a short time later, and just as he was figuring out what happened, he started getting calls from his father’s neighbors.

“We saw Uncle Lubin driving!”

“Just saw Cousin Lubin out in his car!”

Mr. Hunter’s neighbors had good reason to report that information, and their concerns, to his son: Mr. Hunter will celebrate his 100th birthday on May 28.

But Mr. Hunter is not the average 99-year-old, if there is such a thing.

Wickham Hunter told the story while sitting in his father’s living room two weeks ago, along with his sister, Roberta Hunter. They shook their heads and laughed, adding that their father had recently renewed his driver’s license and was known to take a drive into town every now and then.

Lubin Hunter walked slowly but steadily into the living room a few minutes later, settling his tall, lean frame into a rocking chair, his pale blue eyes full of vitality and clarity, with a smile to match. He rocked back and forth gently in the chair as he matter-of-factly spoke about his remarkable life.

He casually referred to himself as a “track star” when talking about his time as captain of the Southampton High School cross country team in the 1930s, and spoke with pride about flying B-17 bomber planes over England and in the South Pacific during World War II.

Mr. Hunter worked many different jobs over the course of his life before retiring to his current home on the reservation, where he still serves as an ordained elder at the Shinnecock Presbyterian Church, and is a great-great-grandfather.

A Simpler Time

When Mr. Hunter was growing up on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation, it was a different place than it is now, down to the landscape itself.

“They didn’t have all these trees,” Mr. Hunter said, gesturing toward his living room window, explaining that people then chopped them down for firewood. Like many families throughout the rest of Southampton, most people on the reservation had farmland and livestock as well, hallmarks of a rural community in the earlier part of the century.

Mr. Hunter started school in a one-room schoolhouse on the reservation, one that is no longer there but sat where the reservation’s community center now is. The school educated all children on the reservation, from kindergarten to eighth grade, with just one teacher, and children had to pass a test to continue on to Southampton High School—which Mr. Hunter did, easily.

Once at Southampton, Mr. Hunter established himself as a standout distance runner. He proudly noted that he still held the record for the mile at Southampton—a feat that is still impressive despite the fact that the record is no longer kept, since the mile stopped being the official measurement when schools switched to using meters.

Mr. Hunter discovered his talent and affinity for running due to necessity, as he ran to and from school each day. He recalled running on dirt and grass tracks for competitions, and said the Southampton track team was full of talent, beating nearly all comers while enjoying a great rivalry with Riverhead.

Mr. Hunter said he liked his coach, Tom Smith, who at the time coached every boys sport at the school, including football, basketball and baseball. “He was a very good coach,” he said, adding he was strict as well. “He didn’t take no stuff.”

Mr. Hunter’s talent as a runner caught the attention of several colleges, and he had a scholarship offer to join the track team at Ohio State University, which caught his attention because it was the alma mater of track and field great Jesse Owens. But his family was unable to afford the application fee. So Mr. Hunter moved to Brooklyn to seek employment, getting a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Before long, however, he was called into service as World War II was under way.

Serving His Country

Like many young men of his time, Mr. Hunter served in World War II, where he flew B-17 bomber planes over England and in the South Pacific for the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force. While in the service, Mr. Hunter was mostly surrounded by peers who were white, even though it was a time when troops were segregated. As an American Indian, he was classified by the Army as white, and it gave Mr. Hunter an interesting perspective.

“The white boys over in Europe were treated like kings, and the colored troops, in England and Germany, well, they were down below,” Mr. Hunter said, adding that he noticed a difference in France, where troops were treated the same, by and large, regardless of race.

Mr. Hunter recalled a time during training in Missouri, when local families would invite troops to their homes for dinner—but only from the white units. Which made for an initially awkward situation when he arrived at one home for dinner.

“When they saw me, their eyes popped out—like, who is this guy?” Mr. Hunter recalled, with a laugh. “But they had already selected a name, so they still had to feed me. But after we got to talking, one person in the family said he’d been to Southampton a few times. So we had a nice time.”

Mr. Hunter said he had a “wonderful time” in the service, and when he speaks of flying B-17s, he does so with an air of pride. When asked about combat and what he saw, his demeanor changed, his voice quieting and the smile fading momentarily.

“We saw many of our planes go down, especially the fighter planes,” he said. “They took a beating in many respects. But the bombers, we did our bombing and then we’d come on home.

“The fighter jets were supposed to be protecting us, but we had to protect them a lot of the time,” he continued. “The Germans were flying new planes that were quite superior to what we had. So when a swarm of them would come through, our fighter planes would come near the B-17s, and we had to fight off the German planes.

“I met a lot of nice guys that were fighter pilots, and I saw them go down,” Mr. Hunter said, his voice quieting and wavering slightly, the emotion still clearly present despite the distance of more than 70 years. “It used to break our hearts to see our friends go down.”

A Jack Of All Trades

Service in the Army Air Corps in World War II was a highlight of rich and diverse work life for Mr. Hunter, who had many interesting and different jobs during his work life. He recalled his job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he worked on the U.S.S. Constitution and the U.S.S. Missouri as a caulker, where he was lowered on a seat attached to two long ropes to work on the ship’s hull.

“We’d go further and further down, and sometimes your feet were in the water,” Mr. Hunter explained. “They couldn’t see you from up top, so you’d have to holler and take your caulking gun and bang on the ship and make sure they pulled you up before the day was over.”

Upon returning from the war, Mr. Hunter put his funds from the G.I. Bill to good use, earning a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College, graduating in 1953. Other jobs included working for the New York Transit Authority as an inspector agent, and working as a social services investigator.

But his longest tenure was working in management for the New York City Housing Authority. In that job, Mr. Hunter interviewed families in tough neighborhoods who wanted to move into the new projects that were popping up in the city, trying to make sure they had the qualifications—no criminal record, etc—to be there.

Mr. Hunter retired from the Housing Authority in the late 1970s and, after a brief spell, joined the workforce again, taking a job with the IRS, working in Lower Manhattan, a job he held into the 1980s.

A Heart For Community

Mr. Hunter bought his first house shortly after returning from the war, paying less than $5,000 for his home on 119th Road in Baisley Park in Jamaica, Queens. It was a neighborhood, he said, that became open to African-American families after working-class Irish families started making more money and moved out.

Like many veterans, Mr. Hunter used money from the G.I. Bill to help buy a house, but extreme segregation on Long Island at the time prevented him from having a lot of choice when it came to where he was going to live. Ms. Hunter pointed out that desirable neighborhoods like Levittown and Massapequa had covenants strictly forbidding the sale of homes to people of color.

Mr. Hunter took it upon himself to make sure Baisley Park was a desirable place to raise a family, starting the Baisley Park Community League, a group of residents that put together functions and worked to make the area a good place to live and raise a family, cleaning up the parks, and making sure no nefarious activity was going on there.

“You were really an inspiration to me, Dad,” Ms. Hunter said, as her father described that part of his life. “I grew up in a household where my parents were very busy with community issues. During that time period, particularly during the civil rights movement, you had young veterans who went out, fought for their country and said, we’re not going to come back and not have opportunities for education, housing and employment.

“There was always that kind of conversation going on in our house,” Ms. Hunter continued. “I heard my father and his friends talking about current events and issues that were impacting them. The NAACP was just starting out at that time, and he was very active in the NAACP in Queens.”

‘No Place Like Shinnecock’

Mr. Hunter and his wife, Elaine Hunter, lived in Queens for many years, moving to Springfield Gardens after selling their home in Baisley Park, and then moving to Hempstead—but they always planned on retiring to the Shinnecock Indian Reservation. The family was there frequently even before moving back there permanently, spending summers there and going often for parties and other family functions.

After his wife died in 1987, Mr. Hunter built his current home on the reservation and moved back home, as did three of his four children—Roberta Hunter, and sons Wickham Hunter and Michael “Tree” Hunter, who earned his nickname because he’s nearly 7 feet tall. Roberta and Wickham were already living there with their families when their father moved back to the reservation. His other daughter, Renee Hunter, lives in Manhattan.

“I always knew I’d come home to Shinnecock,” Mr. Hunter said. “There’s no place like Shinnecock.”

Mr. Hunter notes the many changes he sees from the home of his youth and the way it is now, but his love for the reservation never changed. He spoke of being able to see the ocean waves from his window while growing up, and traversing Shinnecock Bay in the winter by foot when it would freeze, going over to Westwoods for firewood. The bay froze easily in the day before the hurricane of 1938, which first created the cut that made the water brackish and thus more resistant to freezing.

After returning to live on the reservation in the late 1980s, Mr. Hunter was the founding member of the Shinnecock Golfer Association, which hosts tournaments at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Noyac Golf Club and Rock Hill Country Club, raising money for its scholarship fund and to promote activities for youth on the reservation. Mr. Hunter said he enjoyed playing golf, which he picked up while taking a job as a caddy at Shinnecock Hills during his youth.

“We had a rough old Scotsman named Charlie Thom, and he taught us how to play,” Mr. Hunter said, referring to his other friends from the reservation who caddied there and the man who was the head pro at the time. “He said if we didn’t know how to play, how could we take people out on a golf course? And you always had to have your shoes shined, a white shirt, pressed pants, because when those rich folks would come out, they used to come all decked out. If you didn’t look right, Charlie Thom would say, ‘No, boy, you’ve got to go home and change your shirt.’”

Mr. Hunter said he grew a love for the game out of that experience, adding that up until just recently he’d still occasionally take out a golf club and hit a few balls in the open field near his house.

A Bean Sandwich 
And A Barrel Of Money

Staying active seems to be a key to Mr. Hunter’s longevity, but he also credited his Shinnecock Indian ancestry.

“I spent most of my life here on the reservation, eating clams, fresh fruit …”

“And oatmeal,” his son, Wickham, interjected.

“Oh, yes, we’d always have oatmeal for breakfast,” Mr. Hunter responded. “And sometimes even dinner,” he added, as his children laughed.

“And those bean sandwiches,” Ms. Hunter chimed in.

“My grandmother always had beans and would make bean sandwiches on homemade bread,” Mr. Hunter said, a smile unfurling as he continued the story. “She’d make bean sandwiches for us for school, and we’d be there, and the white boys would say, ‘What do you have? We’ll make a trade.’ And they had meat—they’d go to the store and have bologna sandwiches, and we didn’t have money for that.”

The scarcity of money—and the necessity to be wise with it—was another topic Mr. Hunter touched on frequently. He spoke about how he and his friends who worked as caddies would save enough money to outfit themselves for the school year: two pairs of shoes—a good pair of Thom McAn’s cost less than $3, Mr. Hunter said—a leather jacket, two pairs of pants, some shirts, and a sweater. “That’s what we went to school in all year long,” he said.

When asked what he wanted for his milestone birthday, Mr. Hunter paused, before answering, “A barrel full of money!” drawing laughs again from his children. Ms. Hunter said she was thinking of making him some homemade bread and trying to replicate the bean sandwiches his grandmother made.

Mr. Hunter will certainly get a party—a shindig is planned for May 28 at the community center.

Donald Williams, 88, is Mr. Hunter’s first cousin, and the co-chair of the Shinnecock Nation Counsel of Elders. He said Mr. Hunter, also an elder, has a solid reputation among those who live on the reservation.

“He’s a very intelligent and well-educated man,” Mr. Williams said, “and someone who’s respected. He’s gentle and kind to people. You never hear him with a cross word or anything like that.”

Longevity is certainly a family trait—Mr. Williams’s sister, Caroline, is 89, his brother, Arthur, is 96, and Mr. Hunter’s brother, Earl, lived to be 100.

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What a wonderful story about this accomplished man and American hero.
Happy "100"th. Birthday! May God Bless you and your family.
By Jimion (129), Hampton Bays on May 25, 17 7:45 PM
Wonderful story about the older generation. What a blessing and an honor to read about this true American Hero.
By pbsagharbor (8), Sag Harbor on May 26, 17 1:33 PM
1 member liked this comment
Happy Birthday, Lubin!
You've been blessed with a long healthy life and a wonderful family.
Enjoy your birthday and the celebration of you tomorrow.
By concerned east ender (49), Sag Harbor on May 26, 17 5:09 PM
1 member liked this comment
I read this article today in the print edition. Happy 100th Birthday to Mr. Hunter and thank you for your service to our country!
By Robert I Ross (250), Hampton Bays on May 26, 17 7:21 PM
1 member liked this comment