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'Asphalt Cowboy' hangs up his hat

Lester Hunt traveled the world so he could pave it

Posted: May 14, 2011 - 6:23pm  |  Updated: May 14, 2011 - 8:20pm
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Lester Hunt, left, gives directions to Rick Kirby as they repave an overpass on Egan Drive near Sunny Point in 2009.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Lester Hunt, left, gives directions to Rick Kirby as they repave an overpass on Egan Drive near Sunny Point in 2009.

The last vestiges of the winter ice melting from Juneau’s roads and bridges a month or so ago meant two new seasons were right around the corner.

Spring, of course, the one that means green grass, long hikes and gorgeous days when the sun burns through the clouds.

But there’s the other season that begins in April that is somewhat less pleasant: construction, which means delays, detours and workers dangerously close to traffic.

For nearly 40 years, Lester Hunt worked through the latter term, paving roads, runways and what-have-you throughout Alaska — and the world — so others would have just a bit easier access to the joys of spring.

Now, after deciding to retire earlier this year, he’s partaking in those pleasures. His wife, Margaret Hunt, said he went fishing twice last week and has another outing planned for Wednesday.

Those three trips nearly equal the total of times he’s been out to cast lines since he and his family moved to Alaska in the 1980s.

“For the 30 years we’ve lived in Alaska, he’s only been fishing maybe four times,” Margaret said.

A career in construction means travel takes a toll

Lester, 56, started his career in construction in Yakima, Wash., when he was 18. The company he worked for sent him down to a site in Oregon, where he said his first task was to break up cement bags. Traveling from one job to another became the defining characteristic of his career path, which took him from Washington state to Anchorage, then Juneau. He’s only had a few employers — he worked for Juneau’s Secon, Inc. for about 20 years, starting when it was known as Red Sam Construction — but many assignments which have required him to crisscross Alaska or go beyond its borders.

One task required him to trek to Midway Atoll, which is home to few humans, but hosts a U.S. Navy airstrip. Halfway between California and Japan, the island is one of the most remote in the world.

Lester said he spent most of his time working there, so the isolation didn’t cause boredom. He also had entertainment: the gooneybirds that take refuge there. He said during their migration the birds pack the island and cover it with eggs.

“They don’t land too well,” he said. “They have to kind of come in for a roll. They’re pretty funny.”

The travel provided Lester with an adventure for his adult life, but proved difficult at times to Margaret. Lester and she not only had two biological children, but opened their home to five adopted kids and countless foster children. She said one year, 270 youngsters needed to spend at least one night in the Hunt home. Whenever school was out and Lester worked where he could be reached with a ferry ride and a reasonable drive, Margaret would gather up the children, including whichever fosters were living with them at the time, and camp out near Lester’s job site. The family would have to hunt for water near the campsite and watch out for moose and bears, all to enjoy picnics as a family and rides on Dad’s paving equipment.

“Our kids said they’d never have it any other way,” Margaret said. “That those were the most enjoyable times they’d ever had.”

Camping in Lester’s construction zones wasn’t always possible, however, and when he worked in remote areas while the family managed its routine in Juneau, it wasn’t always easy staying in touch. In an era before email, Facebook or free minutes, communication between Lester and Margaret could be sporadic. Margaret remembers receiving one phone call when Lester left for Midway and went on to American Samoa.

“It was quite scary all together. ... Back then, it was different. We didn’t have the computers and you couldn’t call somebody like you can now. The technology is so much different. He could have been on the moon at that point compared to what it is like now.”

The ‘cowboy’ is a nomad no more

He picked up his trademark cowboy hat at a site much closer to home, Petersburg, though he doesn’t quite remember when.

“My ears were getting kind of scorched. ... I didn’t want to get cancer on my ears,” he said. “It worked good on that. The asphalt itself kind of flies in the air ... so it kind of keeps the head cleaned off as well.”

People in Juneau that don’t know him by name likely saw him with that hat on, working with local crews on streets all over the capital city. He said he’s paved Egan Drive three times and plowed snow during the construction off-season at Juneau International Airport.

“I had somebody even come up to me and say ‘You’re like world-renowned,’” Lester said. “I said ‘How’s that?’ He said, ‘Well, the guy with the straw hat, if he’s on the job, that means it’s all going to get done right.’”

Now, though, he’s only going to put on his 10-gallon top in town as he tries to hook a big one or performs long-put-off maintenance on his house. Seven full-time kids and hundreds of fosters can take a toll on floors, walls and windows.

“When you go out of town all the time, you just can’t get anything done, it just doesn’t seem like,” he said. “So, I’ve been tinkering around the house.”

Lester’s also considering traveling. Margaret, a Florida native, said she wants to take him “somewhere nice and warm,” where he can get into the water without worrying about hypothermia. He also hasn’t ruled out returning to work in a job that keeps him much closer to home.

Jim Eliason, the general manager at Secon, testified to Lester’s work ethic.

“It’s always hard to find another guy who’s going to show up every day and do a good job,” he said.

For now, though, Lester’s enjoying the time away from the sometimes grueling physical labor of road work.

“I’m 56 years old and I’m not a spry chicken anymore,” he said. “I was starting to hurt a little bit more when I was shoveling asphalt. It’s intense labor at times.”

Lester’s retirement seems to suit Margaret just fine, as well.

“He’s a happier person to be around,” she said. “Near the end, before he left, it had caught up to him. All the crew’s younger than him. It’s the young way now.”

Happy, it would seem, because he’s home, for good this time.

• Contact Deputy Managing Editor Charles Ward at 523-2266 or at charles.ward@juneauempire.com.

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