Crystal City, Mo. – LeeRoy “Tinker” Paul Gunterman of Festus received a final military honor salute in his intensive care unit room at Mercy Hospital Jefferson last week just before he was transferred to inpatient hospice care.
Tinker was never an official member of the U.S. Marine Corps; his Downs’ Syndrome would not allow him to meet the qualifications, but in his heart he was a Marine for nearly all of his 70-year life. Unofficially, he joined the Marines after a chance meeting in Hillsboro 30 years ago.
His niece Rachel King sat at his bedside and recalled a story from the Jefferson County Fair and Hillsboro Horse Show in 1985. At age 40, her uncle spotted a recruiter tent at the fairgrounds and wandered from his family.
The recruiter asked Tinker if he had the courage to be a U.S. Marine, if he would remain dedicated to the Corps, and if he would always be honest and do his best in everything. When he received affirmative answers, the recruiter removed his hat and placed it on Tinker’s head.
“You should have seen how big his smile got,” King said. “The recruiter picked up his sword and unsheathed it. He asked Tinker to raise his right hand and Tinker was sworn into the U.S. Marine Corps. The recruiter placed his sword on Tinker's shoulder and told him about the integrity of the Corps and that his dedication to the Corps was honorable. Tinker proudly boasted, ‘I do it. I promise.’"
Tinker’s dedication and interest in the Marine Corps came from his step-father Fred Harvey, who served in the Marines. King shared the story on Facebook, hoping to get a response and to have someone stop by to offer the final salute.
“I thought maybe two or three, maybe five people would respond. The next day, the post had been shared 132 times. People from all over the world have been posting salutes, hundreds of them,” King said.
The story reached the Marine Corps League. Members from the Jefferson County 707 Detachment in Arnold and the South St. Louis Detachment 183 sent representatives to be at Tinker’s bedside.
“After the salute, they sang the Marine Corps hymn to him. The things they have done for him have just been mind-boggling,” King said. “God’s love has been shown one more time through this amazing little man.”
The South St. Louis Detachment generously assisted Tinker’s family with financial support for his final expenses. King praised the work of the Marine Corps League and the service provided not only to her uncle but to the veterans and the community.
“Their generosity is unbelievable, and it needs to be recognized,” King said. “They help rebuild lives and no one knows about it. They host events to raise money, and they go into the community and fill needs silently.”
Tinker’s nickname is in reference to his favorite childhood toy. “When he was little and someone would ask his name, he would say Tinker. It was his way of asking you to play Tinker Toys with him,” King said. “He had the mind of an 8- to 12-year-old but he has always had an extremely strong heart. That’s how he made it to 70.”
A resident of St. Robert, Missouri, King shared high praise for the caregivers at Mercy Jefferson who have been there for Tinker not only in his final weeks, but throughout his life and most specifically the last several years, since he has been non-ambulatory. King’s mother and Tinker's sister, Juanita Graf of Festus, has been his primary caregiver.
"She hasn't had a single day off in the past three years. The doctors here call her a patient-care saint. She's an inspiration for her dedication and endless love,” King said. “My brother Kenneth Thomas has lived with Mom and Tinker these past seven years to care for their needs. We are grateful to have had his help.”
King also recognized Tinker’s care givers at Mercy, including those from home care and in the hospital.
“I have been in and out of hospital environments. I have worked in home care and hospice. I have never seen anything like this place. The love and compassion they show is unbelievable,” King said. “They are gifted and truly amazing people. We were so lucky to have had them in Tinker’s life.”
King made reference to a sign that she saw in the ICU during her uncle’s stay. “It says ‘How do we love thee?’ I’m going to write a letter to them and answer that question. They deserve to know just how much we appreciate everything they did and how their kindness touched our hearts,” she said.
LeeRoy “Tinker” Paul Gunterman passed away shortly after midnight on Feb. 1.
For more information on the Marine Corps League, visit http://mcl183.com.