If it was a weekday afternoon, 4-year-old Hunter Sonterre would be parked in front of the TV in his grandmother’s house on U.S. Hwy. 2 a few miles east of Emerado, N.D., watching cartoons. When “Scooby Doo” was over, the boy knew his “Papa,” grandfather Gary, would be coming home soon.
“He would look out the window and wait for his Papa’s truck to come around the corner,” Grandma Mary Sonterre said. “Hunter would go out and sit on the steps and then carry in his grandpa’s lunch pail. He was his biggest fan.”
Gary Sonterre, 60, a heavy equipment operator, died Nov. 16, just two weeks after the cancer that killed him was diagnosed. The loss has been tough on Hunter and the rest of the family, his wife said.
“At the hospital, before Gary died, Hunter got to go in and give him a hug, and he told him he loved him more and more every day,” Mary said. “I don’t know how he’s going to take it. I told him at the funeral, ‘He’s right here in your heart,’ and I think he understands.”
People die every day, people who matter to someone. We tend to be more focused these days on the people lost to COVID-19, especially those who died cut off from husbands or wives, from children and grandchildren. But we also lose people to heart attacks, strokes, accidents … and cancer. The struggle against COVID-19 may require restrictions on how we say goodbye to those folks, too, and that adds to the sadness. Everybody deserves a proper send-off.
At Gary Sonterre’s small, mostly family funeral, a bulldozer was parked outside the funeral home by Gowan Construction of Oslo, Minn., Gary’s employer for 26 years. Several white pickups with the Gowan name, like the pickup Hunter watched for daily, lined up with the ‘dozer in a tribute to a working man, a roadbuilder.
“Gary was a simple guy, and maybe building roads doesn’t seem like the most exciting thing,” Mary said. “But roads are such a critical part of our country’s infrastructure, our commerce, our lives. I think he earned that respect.
“He was a kind, friendly guy. He was always there for his community, whether it was helping the city prepare for the flooding of 1997 or volunteering at BMX races all the years his son raced. He worked with his hands, and he could fix anything. He loved to work with cars.”
Ricky Sonterre, 29, said his father “was way more than a father to me,” and “he made everyone feel like family” the moment they met him. “He loved to work. He made things for me when I was younger, and then he built those things for Hunter – a sandbox, a soap box derby car, a picnic table.”
Gary and Mary met in the Twin Cities. They were married there 36 years ago, in 1984, and two weeks after the wedding they moved to the Grand Forks area for work and to be close to other family members.
Gary drove semi-trucks across the country for about 10 years, then signed on with Gowan Construction so he wouldn’t have to spend so many days and nights on the road, far from home and family.
“He loved his job, and he never missed a day,” Mary said. “He loved to work. In winter, he cleared snow from the lots at Target, the Alerus and other places in Grand Forks. When my son started racing, Gary would work on the track.”
Gary had a big, booming voice, worthy of a man who worked with loud, heavy machinery, and if father and son were on the road and staying in a motel somewhere, Mary said, Ricky could always find him. “He told me, ‘You don’t have to ask what room dad is in. Just stand at the elevator and listen for his voice.’”
The family plans a summer celebration of Gary’s life, “so more people can come,” she said. Ricky, too, looks forward to a bigger, full-throated farewell. “We felt cheated in a way,” he said of his father’s restricted funeral. “You don’t quite get to celebrate their life the way you want.”
At the gathering next summer, Hunter probably will wear one of his grandfather’s Caterpillar caps, like the one he wore when Gary let him ride in his cab. And Mary will pat Hunter’s little chest and remind him that Papa is still with him. “That blood that’s running through you, some of that is from Papa. It came through your dad and now is part of you.”
And Hunter will remember.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.