Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 24, 2013

SALISBURY — To Joyce Smyre, Salisbury Police Sgt. Mark Hunter was “a guardian angel.”

The 20-plus year veteran of the department, who died last Thursday of an apparent heart attack, was well known in the West End community.

And so, Smyre said, “When my husband died, I went to him and said, ‘Sgt. Hunter, you know I’m scared to stay by myself.’ ”

She asked Hunter for a favor: “When you come through Horah Street at night, just shine a light.”

“And Sgt. Hunter would come through here every night when he was on duty,” Smyre said.

“I just thank God for him, and I definitely will miss him,” she said. “I feel like God is shining a light on him.”

With candles, and with memories, about 75 people gathered at dusk Wednesday outside McLaughlin’s Grocery on West Monroe Street, where the late sergeant frequently stopped to talk to neighbors, and grab a large “bellywasher” soda.

They included fellow officers, local residents and students and staff from neighboring Livingstone College.

Deedee Wright, one of the organizers of the event, said she wanted to honor all that Hunter had done for the community.

In spite of sadness, Wright told those gathered, “We are going to make it a joyful occasion.”

With hymns, prayers and testimonials, they paid tribute to Hunter’s years of service and his dedication.

Bishop Harvey Rice, of Mt. Calvary Holy Church in Salisbury, told the story of his first meeting with Hunter.

Rice was driving down Horah Street a little too fast, “and the light came on,” he said, to laughs from the audience.

“Even though his exterior was kind of gruff, Mark Hunter had a heart,” Rice said.

“Mark had more of a growl than anything,” said William Peoples, a local resident. “He adopted this community.”

“Was Mark perfect?” Peoples went on. “No, but he tried. Until you have walked in another man’s shoes, you can’t know his heart.”

Sherry Hawthorne, who helped organize the event, along with Wright and Shirley McLaughlin, said Hunter was “a man of many missions in life.”

“He was the type of person that nothing got in his way … a force for change in the community,” Hawthorne said. “Always with a friendly smile, always with a joke to say.”

“I want everyone here to know that Mark Hunter was one of the most professional police officers I have ever met in my 73 years in Salisbury,” said Fred Evans.

He recalled how Hunter had come to the Evans home to introduce himself years ago, leaving a business card and encouraging them to call on him.

Around the crowd, which formed a circle in the parking lot of McLaughlin’s Grocery, were some 20 Salisbury Police officers in uniform, as well as a crew of Salisbury firefighters.

With black mourning bands over their badges, they stood quietly — sometimes somber, sometimes smiling.

Police Lt. Tom Wilsey, for whom Hunter worked as team sergeant during the last two years, was among them.

“To sum it up, we’ve lost one hell of a cop,” Wilsey said.

He said that the candlelight vigil was “very touching” for those who had worked with Hunter during the two decades he spent on the force.

“I want the community to know that Sgt. Hunter’s fight is not done,” Wilsey said. “The Salisbury Police Department and Chief Collins are going to be here for this community, for the legacy that he’s left us with.”

He said Hunter was not only a fine officer, but a personal friend for over 15 years. “We’ll never be able to replace him,” Wilsey said.

Hunter’s wife, Joyce, was present, along with their children and grandchildren. The family did not speak during the vigil, but stayed to thank those who came.

Standing outside the door of her family’s grocery, Shirley McLaughlin said that all would cherish the memories they had.

It’s hard for her to believe he’s gone. “Like yesterday, I expected that car to come whirling in here,” McLaughlin said.

Hunter’s funeral is set for 11 a.m. Friday at the chapel at Catawba College.

Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.