Hunter Kay, a man born only grudgingly into the 20th century and temperamentally suited to an earlier era, departed this life without warning but apparently at peace on June 16, 2020, at the age of 72.
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Royal Hunter Kay, Jr. described himself as “a Native Texian” on Facebook, proclaiming: “I dig in the dirt and drink whiskey.” He did both of those things exceptionally well. Friends spanning generations will treasure memories of touring the sprawling, ambitious gardens he cultivated around his home on Williamson County’s Backbone Ridge, often with a pewter julep cup of W.L. Weller’s Special Reserve, neat or on ice, at hand. The late Sewanee novelist Andrew Lytle, one of several mentors to Hunter, had prescribed prior to a visit in 1983: “Don’t bring me Jack Daniel’s. They’ve ruined that stuff. Bring me Weller.”
Hunter lived a life of letters. An afternoon bull session, on the porch of the home he built with his own hands in the deep woods of Middle Tennessee, would always feature passionate advocacy of his latest read. He might punctuate the conversation with an apt recitation, from memory, of T.S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor or Victor Hugo. And there would be tales—ribald, raucous and often deeply moving—from his life experiences and those of his Texas forebears. A traditionalist par excellence, Hunter often seemed in his stories to channel the spirits of the long-ago departed.
The one work of fiction Hunter published during his lifetime was a spectacular success. “The Fifth Generation,” a short story about an effete suburban youth who sets out to remake himself in the Louisiana oil fields, appeared in The Sewanee Review in 1973, soon after he submitted it and a collection of other stories as his M.A. thesis at Vanderbilt. In 1977, the editors of the Penguin anthology Stories of the Modern South included Hunter’s story alongside works by the likes of Truman Capote, Robert Penn Warren, Alice Walker, William Faulkner and Ernest Gaines. A later anthology, Stories from Tennessee, also included “The Fifth Generation.”
The bio of Hunter in Stories of the Modern South quotes him as saying, “I have promised everyone from God on down that if I ever finish the house, I will start writing again.” (The house did not yet have running water or electricity.) He started incubating another work of fiction in the last weeks of his life. On May 31, Hunter described to visiting friends the plot of a post-Civil War-era novel he planned to write. The story moved him to tears. A few days later, he again contacted friends: “Had trouble sleeping last night as scenes from the book idea I told you about ‘played’ in my head!”
Hunter was an antiques dealer for many years. He went through phases of enthusiasm in which he would learn all that could be learned about coin silver, medieval liturgical pages, antique maps, 19th-century landscape paintings and more. When the bottom dropped out of the antiques market, he reinvented himself as an art dealer. “I just love beauty,” he often said.
That love extended to the natural beauty with which Hunter surrounded the home he and friend Larry Taylor shared. He labored to transform the landscape around him for decades, and he freely shared bulbs and seedlings with friends. He felt that Middle Tennessee’s moderate spring weather in 2020 had helped yield the most beautiful gardens of his more than 40 years living in “the bee-loud glade.”
A 1966 graduate of Palestine High School in East Texas, Hunter maintained many hometown friendships over the years. Former classmates remembered him as a talented actor and singer who played lead roles in school productions of “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma” and “The Music Man.”
Preceding him in passing were his father, Dr. Royal Hunter Kay, and mother, Elizabeth Tippitt Kay Rogers, as well as his sister, Elizabeth Tippitt Kay Stites. Surviving him, in addition to Larry Taylor, are brother-in-law Bill Stites, sister-in-law Kathy Stites, and nieces Elizabeth Stites Mitchell (Jay) and Susan Stites Shappell (Michael), as well as great-nieces Molly Lane and Libby Mitchell and great-nephew William Mitchell. Other survivors include cousins L. Francis Kay and Tana Clayton Kay, Allison Kay Jarvis and David Jarvis, Clayton Hunter Kay, Sarah Isabelle Jarvis, and Ransom Hunter Jarvis, who was a godson of Hunter. He was also a godfather to Anne Pauline Couteaud, Henry James Long, Vincent Leo Long III, Henry William Robinson, Hunter Claire Rogers and Jessica Ruth Staler.
The family requests that in lieu of flowers, those who loved Hunter make contributions toward the maintenance of the Bettie Kay Rogers Memorial Rose Garden at the historic Carnton home in Franklin, Tenn. The body will be interred in the family plot at Oakwood Cemetery, Corsicana, Texas on Saturday, June 27, 2020 at 1:00pm with Father Ted Welty officiating.
On the wall of his library, Hunter stenciled words from “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. He would want to be remembered in this tenor:
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.
An online guestbook is available at www.corleyfuneralhome.com and selecting the Royal Hunter Kay, Jr. obituary.