The fight is over for John Gunther.
Sandia High School’s hugely popular and respected baseball coach died Wednesday morning after a courageous and stoic 14-month battle against cancer.
He was 55.
Gunther died peacefully at his home. His condition had worsened a couple of weeks ago, and he was receiving hospice care for about the last 10 days.
“He was the servant of all. That’s how I will always think of that man,” said close family friend Dawn Meyer.
Through tears, Meyer said that at the end, Gunther was told his family was all around him.
“Awesome,” Gunther said. And then he died.
A memorial service for Gunther will be held March 28 at 5 p.m. at Copper Pointe Church in Albuquerque.
Gunther was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in January 2016. He began receiving harsh chemotherapy treatments through the winter and the spring.
In March of last year, Gunther told the Journal that he was optimistic his fight against cancer could be won.
“My faith has grown exponentially in this,” he said then. “In my mind, God is the greatest healer, and he can take care of me.”
His condition had improved by late summer, he said. Unfortunately, the cancer never was eradicated and by late in the year, it had spread, aggressively, to his liver, lungs and lymph nodes.
Gunther, in an interview with the Journal on Feb. 9 of this year at the Sandia baseball field, sounded strong and resilient as he continued to direct Matadors practices even in the face of his diagnosis.
“He’s the type of person who will never be replaced, never be forgotten,” said Sandia girls basketball coach and friend Lee Kettig. “Everyone was just blessed to know him. He meant the world to us.”
Although the cancer had spread, Gunther said last month that he had declined further chemo treatments, saying he wanted to focus instead on enjoying as much quality of life as he could with the time he had left, including a long-planned trip to Mexico in May with his family.
Gunther admitted that he even had begun to think about his own funeral plans.
“An amazing person,” Valley coach Chad Kuhn said. “He was a great man.”
The affable Gunther, who had a birthday on Feb. 26, coached the Sandia varsity for six seasons, twice leading the team into the state championship game, in 2012 and 2013.
“He was very well respected among all the coaches,” Rio Rancho coach Ron Murphy said. “From what I knew of John, he was a great person, on and off the field, and was a great family man.”
Gunther was a math teacher for more than 20 years. He retired on Feb. 16, he said, to help preserve enough energy to make it through baseball season.
“John was a great competitor and he had some terrific teams that took on his personality as a guy who loved the game and they played their hearts out for him,” former Eldorado baseball coach Jim Johns said. “He was a true professional educator and he will be missed in the baseball community.”
Gunther was a valedictorian at Bernalillo High and also graduated from the University of New Mexico. He is survived by his wife, Shari, and their children, Robert, David, Brittney and Sarah.
Robert Gunther has largely been running Sandia’s baseball varsity team this season.
On Tuesday, La Cueva painted Gunther’s initials into the grass behind home plate before a metro tournament game against the Matadors. The Carlsbad tournament last weekend also paused to honor Gunther.
At their varsity girls basketball game on Valentine’s Day, Kettig’s team and visiting Clovis helped raised money through Gunther Strong, which became a rallying cry for Gunther. During the course of a brief ceremony, Kettig said, nobody had remembered to thank the Wildcats.
“Who was it that remembered?” Kettig said. “It was John, of course. That just personifies him. He cared about everyone around him in an honest way.”
Said Meyer, “One of the things that always struck me about John was, he was always the first one to hop up and say, ‘Can I help you with that?’ Or, ‘How can I make this easier for you?’ What an amazing witness to what he believed.”