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Wilson loses one of its biggest champions

POSTED: April 6, 2012 7:00 a.m.
Alan Rusch/

Eleanor Hunter, in chair in front of grand marshal sign, rides in a parade the Saturday morning of Wilson's After Harvest Czech Festival.

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Eleanor Hunter wasn’t flashy. But in her determined, quiet way, Wilson’s two-time mayor got things done and Ellsworth County was a better place for it.
Years ago, when it looked at if the Wilson State Bank was about to be sold to a larger bank and turned into a branch operation, Hunter convinced local investors to purchase the bank’s stock and keep it under hometown ownership.
“She was instrumental in Wilson State Bank being what it was ... It remained Wilson State Bank,” said Irv Mitchell, bank president.
Hunter also was a founder of the Smoky Hills Charitable Foundation, which has awarded thousands of dollars in grants to towns and organizations throughout Ellsworth County. A foundation fund in her name delivers yearly scholarships to Wilson High School seniors.
Judy Toman of rural Ellsworth, who worked with Hunter on the foundation board, said the fund targets students who might not otherwise be eligible for help. Toman remembers Hunter’s exact words when the fund was established, “I was a B student and never had a chance at a scholarship.”
Friends remembered Hunter this week after her sudden death Friday at age 80. Her funeral was Tuesday at the St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, where she donated countless hours of her time. The church was filled with people paying their final respects to the woman whose dedication to her family, friends and community touched so many lives.
“When something needed doing, she’d step up to the plate,” said Robert Grauer of Wilson, a long-time friend. “It will take a couple of years for people to realize what all she did and what all they’ve lost. She could get things done when others couldn’t.”
Hunter’s list of accomplishments was long. She was a lifetime resident of Wilson who retired from the Wilson State Bank after 44 years of working there; however, she also was active in county and regional organizations.
She was instrumental in the 1989 construction of the Wilson Senior Center and served on the Ellsworth County Council on Aging board at the time of her death. The center was closed Tuesday in Hunter’s memory.
“She literally took a piece of dirt and made a senior center out of it,” said Sharon Holloway, a friend and center manager.
Hunter continued her involvement after the center opened, keeping it financed with grants and fundraisers. Holloway said the center may be the former mayor’s lasting legacy to Wilson.
“The Wilson Senior Center was her baby,” Holloway said. “She didn’t want anyone to go without a meal, especially the seniors ...
“She had big shoes and it’s going to take several people to fill them.”
Hunter also was the only woman ever to serve on the board of the Ellsworth-based Smoky Hills Electric Cooperative, which later merged with Rolling Hills Electric.
Dale Weinhold of Ellsworth is retired from Rolling Hills and also worked with Hunter on the board of the Post Rock Opportunities Foundation, which owns Kansas Originals Market & Gallery at Wilson.
“Eleanor was sharp,” he said. “She didn’t speak a lot, but when she spoke it had meaning ... She was a nice lady, a super nice lady.”
Hunter’s former colleagues at Wilson City Hall also remembered her fondly.
“She did a lot for our community — more than people will probably ever know. She was very good at helping a lot of people. And as far as I’m concerned, I thought she ran our city very well,” said Cindy Heinze, council president.
“She did a lot of things that she never got credit for, nor did she want credit for them,” Heinze said. “That’s not why she did it. I think this is going to leave a big hole in Wilson.”
“I think it’s devastating for Wilson,” said Susan Kriley, Wilson city clerk. “She lived here all of her life and she did so much for the community. She was definitely a Wilson supporter.”
Kriley said Hunter’s influence can be seen in many places.
“It was her leadership, but yet she served on a lot of organizations behind the scenes, under the radar. But it wasn’t just her leadership, it was her community values — it was everything she did for the community,” Kriley said.

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