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Community stunned by tragic death of former Strabane reporter

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Community stunned by tragic death of former Strabane reporter thumbnailThe late Austin Hunter pictured with his beloved wife, Jean.

WARM tribute has been paid this week by family, colleagues and politicians among many others to well-known and highly respected 'son' of Strabane, Austin Hunter, who was tragically killed at the weekend while working abroad.

Mr Hunter, who began his journalistic career with the Strabane Weekly News and its sister paper the Tyrone Constitution, died on Saturday after being knocked down by a vehicle in Bahrain in the Middle East.

A distinguished media man of integrity, news of his untimely passing has been met with widespread shock and sadness.

In a career spanning 45 years, Mr Hunter held a number of top jobs within the media and public relations sector.

A former editor of the News Letter, the 64-year-old, who had also worked as head of communications for the RUC and PSNI and in similar roles for the Orange Order and Royal Black Institution in recent years, had been in the Persian Gulf on business as a media consultant when the accident occurred.

He had been working with the non-profit organisation Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas (NI-CO) - an organisation that sends local experts to advise state bodies abroad.

Born and reared at Artigarvan, Mr Hunter came to work with this newspaper in 1970 where he spent almost a decade serving as a reporter and then deputy editor before moving on to join the BBC.

As a journalist in Strabane he reported on some of the darkest days of the Troubles with utmost professionalism and sensitivity.

He was a hugely popular figure within the local community and far beyond. Mr Hunter and his wife, Jean, a native of Sion Mills, resided at Eden Terrace during his time in Strabane.

The couple moved to Comber, Co Down, in 1981 where they set up home and lived for a number of years before moving about a year ago to Holywood.

Despite moving on from Strabane, he retained a deep affinity for the town and its community.

Mrs Hunter said her husband was "very proud to be a Strabane man."

Speaking on Monday, she told the Strabane Weekly News: "His career took him on many and varied paths but he always retained his love for the town. He never forgot his Strabane roots. He was very proud to be a Strabane man.

"We were pupils of Strabane Grammar School and 10 years ago we were both members of the organising committee set up for the school's 50th anniversary.

"We both loved going back for a wee walk around the town. Austin had been back to a few things at the Alley Theatre and in the recent past he contributed to a huge press photography exhibition - which included many of his own images of the town," she said.

His vast catalogue of photographs formed the backbone of the hugely successful 'A Day in the Life' exhibition. At the time, Mr Hunter said the exhibition was "dedicated to the people of Strabane".

 

'Top professional'

Described by many of his peers as a 'top professional', Mr Hunter was at the forefront of all the happenings in Strabane in the 1970s and it was a role he performed with distinction and vigour.

As well as working for the 'Weekly News', Mr Hunter was a prolific source of news stories and was the local correspondent for many media outlets in Belfast and beyond.

He was also highly regarded within the media industry as being an encourager of young journalists and this week tributes continue to flow in from former colleagues and those who benefitted from his wealth of experience.

His family say they have been left devastated by their loss but are deeply touched by the outpouring of heartfelt tributes to him.

"We're absolutely devastated at the loss of a loving husband, father and grandfather.

"We are deeply touched by the warm tributes paid by so many and they have given us some comfort in this awful time," a family statement read.

Away from his professional career, the father-of-two was also a keen sports fan with a particular interest in cricket and hockey.

Paying tribute, Wesley Atchison, editor of The Tyrone Constitution and Strabane Weekly News, said he was 'greatly saddened' and 'shocked' by the tragic death of his former work colleague and good friend over many years.

"Austin was a tireless worker during his time as journalist and deputy editor with the two sister Tyrone newspapers," he said.

"He was based in Strabane and his warm personality endeared him to all right across the community. He had an unquenchable thirst for news stories and was wholly dedicated to his work.

"He covered many heart breaking stories in north Tyrone during the height of the Troubles and always did so with great sensitivity.

"His respectful and courteous manner is still fondly remembered by many in his native Tyrone who have been expressing their shock and disbelief over the tragedy."

Mr Atchison said that Mr Hunter always retained a deep affection for Strabane and the newspapers.

"Even though it is many years since he left our newspapers here in the west he never forgot his links and there was many a supportive phone call and words of guidance which I much appreciated from a man regarded so highly by so many.

"My thoughts and prayers go out to his beloved wife, Jean, son Simon, daughter Rachael and the wider family circle," he added.

Amongst the scores of those to pay tribute to Mr Hunter was Robin Walsh, former BBC NI controller, who said: "Northern Ireland has lost its best all-round journalist."

Cross-party tributes were also paid to him in the Assembly on Monday whilst local Ulster Unionist councillor, Derek Hussey said he was shocked by the tragic news.

"My memories of Austin go way back to his days as a reporter on our local papers and, on those occasions when we would have met since, he always had time to say 'hello' and have a chat as to how things were on the 'old home patch'.

"A true gent and media memorable. I extent my sincere sympathy to Austin's wife, family and friends," he said.

Funeral arrangements for Mr Hunter have yet to be finalised.

He is survived by his wife Jean, son Simon, daughter Rachael, brother Adrian, and grandchildren. His step-father, Jim Gilmore, resides in Omagh.

 

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