John Hunter has plenty of blessings to count this time of year.
He survived the May 2011 tornado and beat a subsequent fungal infection that many have assumed was caused by the storm. He also is a survivor of thyroid cancer.
But Hunter, director of the library at Ozark Christian College, has a new reason to be thankful this year. It's a painting that he has desired in the 47 years since he starred in his high school's fall show, and although it's a minor blessing compared with others, it's no less meaningful to him.
"The painting was just kind of a relic, memorabilia from that play," he said.
In 1969, Hunter entered his senior year at Joplin's Memorial High School. Lacking ambition and wishing to simply skate through the year, he had no intention of finding his niche with only a few months of his education left.
But those around him took notice of his presence during speech class, which was an elective that he took to fulfill a graduation requirement. Earl Squyres, the drama teacher, encouraged him to audition for the fall play, "Harvey."
Hunter did so and was astonished to be cast in the lead role, Elwood Dowd. Elwood is an eccentric character whose primary friend is a 6-foot-tall imaginary rabbit named Harvey. The play follows Elwood and his sister, Veta, as they grapple with committing Elwood into a sanitarium and ultimately accept each other as they are — imaginary bunny and all.
Hunter never expected to win such a major role, but in hindsight, he is glad that he did. Entering the world of theater brought him out of his shell, made him more vocal and even earned him the Best Actor Award from the senior class at the end of the school year.
"I got into it kind of by accident, but it ended up being a life-changer," he said. "From where I started that senior year to where I ended that May, it was night and day."
In a critical scene in the play, Elwood gets his portrait done alongside Harvey and hangs the picture over the mantel, replacing a portrait of his mother. An art student at Memorial, a classmate of Hunter's, created the painting that was used in the production.
For years afterward, the painting hung in a display case at Memorial. When the display case was eventually cleared out, Hunter said he heard that the artist reclaimed the painting, but he continued to wish that he had been able to keep it because of what it meant to him.
"A big part of it was that (the show) was what triggered my love of theater and drama," he said.
Recreating the painting
So 47 years after his debut with "Harvey," Hunter asked Paula Giltner, the artist in residence at Ozark Christian College, about whether she might be able to recreate the painting for him. His 1970 yearbook had been destroyed in the 2011 tornado, but he was able to track down one of his senior photos as well as an image of the painting from that yearbook that was located via Classmates.com with the assistance of the Joplin Public Library.
Giltner said she agreed to do the project because it sounded like fun, and she was familiar with both the play and the subsequent film.
"I looked at some of the paintings that were done for the movie and some other ones I saw online," she said. "I ended up just making my own version. John supplied a good picture of his high school senior portrait. I studied some rabbit shapes from references I found online."
The resulting picture, of a teenage Hunter seated next to a large white rabbit wearing a blue vest and a bow tie, was painted with acrylics and took only a few days, Giltner said.
"It must have meant a lot to him to have that done," she said.
Hunter was surprised with the finished portrait late last week. For now, it hangs in his office at OCC, although he eventually plans to take it home with him.
And this Thanksgiving he is grateful that, after so many years, he is able to have a piece of what turned his life in a new and different direction.
"For me, anyway — it's like I started there," he said.
About the play
"Harvey" was written in 1944 by Mary Chase, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the work in 1945. The production premiered on Broadway in November 1944 and closed in January 1949. A revival starring Jimmy Stewart, who also headlined the 1950 film, ran on Broadway in 1970, shortly after the production at Memorial High School.
John Hunter said the local rumor was that Stewart was due to attend the high school's show to see how the students were producing it. Disappointment was high when the actor never appeared.