To the end of his life, George Hunt Jr. of Puyallup loved being on the water.
“The last few years, he was comfortable being alone on a boat fishing,” daughter Kathi Grogan said. “He’d fish for hours, bring the catch in, and mom would cook them for dinner.”
Hunt made history on the water in 1936 when he and the rest of the University of Washington crew went to the Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany and brought home a gold medal.
Those crew members, their stories of hardscrabble life during the Depression and their run to Olympic glory are the subjects of the 2013 book “The Boys in the Boat,” which rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list and is being made into a Hollywood movie.
Dozens of South Sound residents have read or are reading the book by Daniel James Brown for this year’s Pierce County Reads program.
Two others who read and learned from it are Hunt’s own daughters.
“I don’t know that I ever realized he was a hero,” daughter Kristin Hunt Cheney said. “When I was little I’d take that gold medal out of a drawer and race around the house with it around my neck. We put it on one of the dogs. I didn’t understand the significance.”
Hunt, who died in 1999 at age 83, was not above discussing his role in the Olympics and, in fact, enjoyed being the center of attention at social gatherings, his daughters said.
“But there was family and then there was everyone else,” Cheney said. “Dad didn’t talk about it much at home. One of my regrets is that I never asked him more questions about it.
“The book filled out a different look at my father, and I’m extremely proud of him. I did not understand the amount of work and dedication it took to do what he did.”
After graduating from Puyallup High School at age 16, Hunt went on to great heights as a 6-foot-4 senior at UW. Naturally, he was dubbed “Shorty” by his fellow crew members.
“He grew another inch after the Olympics,” Grogan said.
Next weekend, the Puyallup Public Library will celebrate Hunt and “The Boys in the Boat” with a historical exhibit and discussion. On hand will be Hunt’s medal and oar, photos, film clips and stories.
Cheney will be there, too, though Grogan cannot attend.
“Dad would be amused, delighted and proud all this is going on,” Cheney said. “That crew was family to him. They got together every summer and were like brothers.”
Both Cheney, who lives in Federal Way, and Grogan, of Woodinville, inherited their love of animals from their dad and their mom, Eleanor.
“We always had dogs and cats growing up, and I’ve had them all my adult life,” Grogan said.
“In our family, our parents felt they had two daughters and X-number of cats and dogs —without a huge distinction between us,” Cheney said.
After the Olympics, Hunt lived a full life, and while he was proud of what he’d accomplished on the world’s greatest field of competition, he wasn’t a man who clung to the past.
During World War II, he served in the Navy Seabees. Afterward, making use of his engineering degree, he co-founded Collins-Hunt Construction in Seattle. Later, he started George E. Hunt Construction, which specialized in commercial buildings.
“He was much more than one event,” Grogan said. “In my family, he was always ‘Dad’ or ‘Grandpa’ and just happened to have been an Olympian.”
Over the years, newspapers, magazines or television stations would return to the Berlin Olympics and interview crew members, including Hunt. It always caught the family off guard.
“My mother, sister and I were always surprised that something would come up and it would be in the news again,” Cheney said. “We’d tease dad, ‘How long can you ride this wave?’ He’d laugh. He was proud. I think he felt this was one of, if not the most, important things he accomplished.”
Both his daughters adored Hunt, and are glad to share his legacy with a new generation of readers. Going through boxes of memorabilia, Cheney found photos and letters, including one written by Hunt after the games.
“He wrote home that he was excited he’d be home in time for the fair,” in Puyallup, Cheney said.
“Dad was a presence I still feel in my life, one who taught me honesty and determination,” Grogan said. “Every morning I take a walk and talk to him. Maybe that sounds crazy, but I do.”