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Love Notes

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Love Notes

Mike Gunter beat insurmountable odds in a battle with cancer. What’s important now, he says, is friends, family, a little time with the horses and giving to others

Tis the season of giving. Actually, that season lasts all year long in our generous community. Since the calendar date suggests special emphasis on giving, I’d like to share a story about one of the multitude of “angels” among us who invests his talents, time and good fortune for the benefit of others.

May his personal story and the saga of his life-altering event, prompting even more reason for his good works, serve as just one poignant example among the many compassionate individuals who work tirelessly, both publicly and often very privately, to provide support for those in need. Our population teems with such souls, and for that we are very fortunate.

My story features a well-known area native who has lived his own American dream right here in Sandpoint and its surrounding area. He’s also been a recipient of the community’s compassion.

I chose Mike Gunter for this column after visiting him at his office recently. Starting the conversation by asking how he was doing with his young Quarter Horse, I couldn’t shut him up to get a word in edgewise about my own Appaloosa filly.

He told me about helping Steve Wood move cows, about getting unloaded from his horse and about how pleased he was to be teaching the horse to rein with a light hand. Finally, I figured it was time to break in and change the subject to my real motive for the visit.

I mentioned hearing his frequent radio ads and seeing his other efforts over the past year of seeking community support on fundraising benefits to aid a couple of Sagle boys and, most recently, for the Chris Owens family.

“Why?” I asked.

Mike appeared speechless.

I pressed him more.

“Why, all the work on the benefits?” I added, knowing the answer but wanting to hear it come from his lips.

“To give back,” he answered, visibly moved.

“That’s exactly what I figured,” I said. “Just wanted to make sure.” Mike wasted no time telling me he had “a little help” from family and friends with these projects. I knew that, too.

I also knew I had my candidate for a very nice Christmas column to remind us of our true mission on this earth.

Mike, a farm boy from Sagle, can tell tales of a charmed childhood, augmented by close-knit family, daily chores followed by afternoons at play and long-held neighborhood friendships. His Sagle upbringing, in what I like to call Gunterville, could mirror that of most of us who beam at the chance to tell nostalgic stories of our North Idaho beginnings.

Add to that Mike’s college graduation from the University of Idaho, a devoted wife Karen and two wonderful kids, Clint and Kari, who’ve gone off, graduated and come home to serve their community. There are also the blessed grandchildren. There’s the camaraderie with his siblings, especially his brother Pat, with whom he shares and stewards part of the Gunter property where his dad once ran a dairy and his mom sold cream to the neighbors. There’s the family heritage of generations living here in Bonner County.

And, the business he purchased in 1984 with his childhood friends, Dale Jeffres (Mike and Dale were born the same day, September 28, 1951, at the Sandpoint Hospital; moms were roommates) and Dwight Sheffler has done well too, not only for the trio’s families but also for many families of employees in the community.

Sandpoint Furniture has prospered and grown since the partners moved it from downtown Sandpoint to Ponderay. Over the years, they’ve added new specialties to their offerings and their service. Along with that came the Ponderay Events Center. The complex has served as venue for numerous community events, including Mike’s 40th year SHS class reunion this past summer.

Mike definitely has a touching story to tell, so I’ll let him tell it from this point on.

On family: I live on an 80-acre piece, owned jointly and some separately by myself, my brother Pat and my father. Some of this ground was part of my grandfather Vernon Gunter’s original land when he and my Grandmother Laura moved to Sagle in the early ‘20s, all the way from Culdesac, Idaho.

My mother’s parents were both born and raised in the Glengary area, and I believe my grandfather, Clifford Warren’s parents came here from Minnesota in the late 1800s. So I am actually a fourth-generation Bonner County resident. Grandma Irma Warren also attended Glengary School.

I met my wife, Karen, at the Lewiston Round Up in September, 1971, while a sophomore at the U of I. She was only a junior at Lewiston High, and it really took some convincing of her parents that I was really just a dumb farm kid and nothing to worry about. We were married in September, 1973.

Our son, Clint, is a U of I grad and now the general manager of Sandpoint Furniture. He’s married to Margie. Our daughter Kari is also a U of I grad and a teacher for Virtual Academy for the state of Idaho. Kari is married to Ross, who is our CFO in the business. Ross and Kari have given us two precious granddaughters, Karsen (6) and Taylor (3).

On childhood responsibility and a work ethic: My dad ran a dairy and sold Grade A milk to Carnation until I was 5 years old. When Carnation required everyone to go to a “pipeline” system, Dad decided to sell out and begin his career in the road and bridge construction business as a “pile buck” and also a carpenter.

My mother stayed home and raised my brother Pat and me, along with my two sisters, Diane and Darla. I was the oldest. My mother became the secretary at Sagle School for many years after we got older.

I had a really good childhood, although, to many of today’s young people, it might not have been. My childhood was defined first by work on the home place from a very young age. Everything else came after the work was done.

By the time I was nine, I was milking 3 cows, seven days a week, twice daily. All my friends thought I was cheating because I got to use the old Surge milker, left over from the dairy. They all had to milk one cow by hand.

We had steers to feed and water and ice to thaw all winter long before and after school because Dad was away on constructions jobs and Mom sold the milk to neighbors for extra income. On weekends, Pat and I spent many Saturdays fixing fence, cutting wood, doctoring cattle, weeding endless rows of garden, and whatever had to be done.

On childhood and family memories: I absolutely loved hunting and fishing. It was the only time I could do things with Dad that didn’t entail work and I enjoyed seeing him actually “let down.”

Dad had a commercial license for Bluebacking (Kokanee), and we would smoke, can and freeze what we needed and sell the rest to Evan’s Fishery. Many times, we would catch our limit of 350 in the morning on a Saturday. I also enjoyed hunting deer and elk and that provided our meat for the winter. We would sell our beef. Why eat our own beef when there was free “government beef” running wild for the taking?

I also loved playing baseball. That was a Sagle heritage. I was and still am proud to say that I was a part of the Sagle baseball legacy, dating back to the old “Sagle Sourdoughs” that first played in the very early 1900s. Baseball was the one sport that Dad let us play after the work was done. Dad played for Sagle in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and he loved the sport.

A typical summer day in Sagle in the early ‘60s meant that all of the local kids got up early and finished their assigned work for the day by noon. Then we would all gather at the Sagle ball diamond and play baseball for hours.

We would then find enough beer bottles in the ditch line to go to Grandpa Sheffler’s store [Dwight and Dwayne’s grandfather] and turn them in for the coldest and sweetest “nectar of the gods” that anyone could ever imagine.

We would then sit around that store and talk baseball with Grandpa Sheffler until it was chore time. I later played basketball and ran track for SHS.

On educational experiences: I went to Sagle School through the sixth grade and then attended the old SJHS where the Sandpoint Event Center is now. And, yes, I had Charlie Stidwell for our principal, along with so many others. I then went on to SHS and graduated in 1969. From high school, I attended the U of I and graduated in 1973 with a BS degree in marketing from the College of Business.

On current interests: Personal interests would be my horses. I like to ride as much as I can, and I am getting into the training aspect now, trying to become a better all-around horseman. I also like to ride my mountain bike. I’ve put in more than 1,000 miles this year since March.

 My brother and I still raise alfalfa hay on the farm, along with our cousin Don, across the road. We share equipment and help each other. Collectively, we baled and sold about 5,000 bales this summer.

 I get a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction knowing that I am using my father and my grandfather’s land for agriculture. We want to be good stewards of that land for the short time that we will have it, before it passes on to our children. Hopefully they will want to continue the family legacy. I think my dad and my grandfather are and would be proud of what we do.

On friendship and business: My career has been with Sandpoint Furniture for 33 years. My partners are Dale Jeffres and Dwight Sheffler, who are also two of my best friends. We graduated and played sports for SHS together.

We purchased Sandpoint Furniture in 1984, and the business has been in incredible blessing to all of us and our families. We now have six kids in the business among the 3 of us. We refer to them as the “second generation, ” and they are doing a great job of continuing the business in a progressive and positive way.

I have stepped away as the CEO and reinvented myself as the marketing director. I do all the advertising for each of the businesses. Now I can come in late and then leave early to make up for coming in late.

Nowadays, a perfect day in my life is getting up and doing my 30 minutes of exercise, feeding the horses, having coffee with my two partners Dwight and Dale, at 10 am, answering my e-mail and plan out my advertising for the next two weeks. By 3 pm it’s time to work out and then either ride one of the horses or ride my bike. I try to alternate, but try to do one or the other at least five days a week. I love to ride in the mountains with a partner or by myself. It is so relaxing, and it gives me a great sense of peace. Oh, and I do take my wife out to dinner occasionally.

My present position, as stated earlier, is marketing director for all of our businesses. This includes five different newspapers, four radio stations (I do my own spots and I voice them myself). I also do four direct mailings a year, as well as writing the audio for our TV spots now on KREM and KXLY. I write the script for our ON HOLD messaging and our reader boards each week on Hwy 200 and 95. I also serve on our board of directors as a senior partner.

My partners are also my best friends. We have always met for coffee at 10 am for the last 27 years. We have always said we built our success around coffee because having communicated literally five-six days a week, problems were never able to build up into big problems.

We talked business or monkey business; it didn’t matter. What mattered is that we were able to talk to each other and trust each other with some of our deepest concerns. Many men don’t get that opportunity because we’re trained to just internalize all of that.

On a life-changing event and a rebirth, of sorts: Until I got my first diagnosis, I considered my life “near perfect.” In May, 2006, my wife noticed some lumps on my skin. The doctors wanted to just treat it as a reaction to something. Karen insisted on a skin biopsy right away, which, according to the University of Washington, may have ultimately saved my life.

After two biopsies and more than 50 doctors from UW and Stanford, analyzing my extremely rare and unique case, the cancer was officially diagnosed as “hematodermic malignant neoplasm.” In laymen’s terms it was a non-Hodgkins lymphoma but with unique leukemia characteristics.

In October 2006, I was told that it was very rare and extremely aggressive. In fact, I am told that I am the only person in the United States with this diagnosis. The life expectancy appeared to be 12 to 14 months.

My only chance for survival would be a full stem-cell transplant utilizing the harshest and most aggressive chemotherapy and TBI (total body irradiation) that mankind can survive. I was told that one third of the patients will not survive the treatment.

My reaction, at that time, was a total numbness that came over me. I couldn’t speak, as I looked at my wife, and my son and daughter-in-law, who were in the room at that devastating moment. I went through all of the emotions of shock, denial, anger, and finally an acceptance of what had to be done.

I knew, at that time, that if I lived, my life and perspective would be changed forever. I thought about all I had worked for, my family, my precious granddaughters, and all that I still wanted to do and accomplish.

The treatment: I believe that it was seven rounds of chemo that I started with, and the cocktail was so toxic that the doctors compared it to about eight times the potency used for breast cancer. I had to stay in the hospital for four days on each of these treatments, which were spread out over four months from February through April of 2007.

I was so sick and weak it was hard to function, but I made myself keep moving. One of the nurses at KMC lives at Sagle and she saw me plowing snow with the tractor and really got after me, but I told her that this was what I needed to do, to keep going ahead.

 By May of 2007, it was determined that I was in complete remission. By mid-May, Karen and I were on our way to Seattle, where we had rented an apartment close to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. That’s where we would spend the next four months preparing for my transplant. To cage a Sagle boy up in a little third-story apartment in downtown Seattle was about as cruel as the treatment.

After going through weeks of testing and poking and analyzing, they were ready to harvest my stem cells. It took two tries and an extra two weeks, but we finally got more than 8 million of the little “buggers.” They were hoping for 3 million, so I was already 5 million to the good. The last week of July, I was given the final round of chemo, which was a massive dosage, that would take my white blood cell count to zero. This is called a time of “Near Death.”

At that same time, I was undergoing TBI twice a day for four days. They were literally cooking and sterilizing every cell in my body, including my bone marrow and my brain. (So that’s what went wrong!) I could only survive this way for a few days.

After four days, I was given my healthy stem cells back through a 6-hour process, like a dialysis, which they refer to as “the rescue.” My stem-cell transplant was official on August 1, 2007. They call this my new birthday, like the beginning of my new life.

I would like to be able to tell everybody how brave and courageous I was but that, quite simply, was not true. Many days I did not want to go on. I was ready to quit and go home and let things take its course.

If you remember the poem “Footprints in the Sand,” well... I had heel marks where I was being dragged along by God and by Karen. How can I not be a different person and seeing life through a different lens after taking this journey? Karen and I stayed in Seattle for another 30 days, as they checked my blood and vitals daily, and watched for complications. I was then sent home.

On Sept. 1 with a long list of don’t dos and don’t eats. I couldn’t even be around my horses or be around dirt for six months. Kind of a “boy in a bubble.” That’s a tough challenge for a farm boy to adhere to. I have to say that the support that I received from family and friends, through phone calls, visits, and especially prayer, was just unbelievable.

People I hadn’t seen for years were contacting me and telling us that we were on their church prayer lines. I was on prayer chains literally all over the western United States. I believe that there were actually thousands that prayed for Karen and me during this time.

My mind wouldn’t let me believe that I could be healed. The doctors told me that if the cancer came back, it most likely would be in the first year, that it would come back with a vengeance and that it would be immune to the treatments that I had just had. Naturally, I would dwell on this.

Well, the six-month check-up results came back with no sign of the cancer. WOW! Was that exciting! Then the one year, then 18 months, and finally my second year was complete. In September of this year, and the doctor told me that I could start using the “C” word, meaning a cure.

On life’s current mission: I know that God has extended my life for this period of time. I can’t answer why he chose me. There are so many people that I know that have been diagnosed since my cancer manifested itself, and I feel that they were more deserving than I, and their life has been cut short.

I do believe that God has a purpose for me and “how can I not answer that call?”

I also know that I was given the gift of being able to run a successful business for the past 25 years. Over those years, I have developed some unique marketing skills that have served me well in my business. I now feel the need to give back to this community that I love, using these skills to make people’s lives better wherever and whenever I can. I guess I have been practicing for this time for the last 25 years.

It’s been my honor to help with the marketing of the events benefitting Tyler Cordle, the little boy with cancer, who is doing very well now. The Cooper’s Night Benefit has made a huge impact in this little boy’s life. The Chris Owens benefit and auction from a couple of weeks ago was a huge success, and it is so gratifying to see how their lives have been touched by the outpouring of this amazing community.

I’m a member of VAST (Victim’s Advocate Support Team) through Bonner County. They are the first to step in and support families devastated by domestic violence.

The outpouring and compassion of this community continues to amaze me in a way that I wasn’t able to see as clearly before. I can’t say enough about the outpouring of support here, when somebody needs help. All I do is the marketing. I know how to get the word out and to relay the message through radio and newspaper, but others put in hundreds of hours planning and making.

It all happens in such a positive way. When I see this outpouring, it energizes me in such a way that I know this is exactly how I am to be using my gifts and talents.

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Author info

Marianne Love Marianne Love is a freelance writer and former English teacher who enjoys telling the stories of her community. She has authored several books, the latest of which is "Lessons With Love."

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