Almost an hour before the 4.5-mile procession arrived, hundreds of people were already lined up near the intersection of 11th and Washington. They were waiting to pay their respects for Sgt. Jonathon Hunter, a Columbus soldier who died Aug. 2 defending his country while serving in Afghanistan.

Just west of the motorcade’s destination point, the Barkes, Weaver & Glick Funeral Home, a group gathered near a banner hanging in front of Joe Willy’s Burger Bar. It featured a photograph of the fallen soldier flanked by the American flag on one side and the U.S. Army Seal on the other.

“Thank you for your service. Sgt. Jonathon Hunter. We will never forget,” the sign read.

North of the restaurant, a young woman stood near Columbus Fire Station 1 holding a poster depicting a football jersey that bore the name Hunter and the number 22. That was Jonathon Hunter’s assigned number as a member of the Columbus East Olympians until his 2011 graduation.

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Showers that began to fall at 11:07 a.m. soon turned into heavy rain. But even after word spread that the procession was late in starting and would arrive about 10 minutes later than expected, not one person near the funeral home left their places to seek shelter.

That includes members of the Bartholomew County Honor Guard, as well as 87 seventh- and eighth-graders from St. Peter’s Lutheran School.

“We want to show the community that we appreciate all that he’s done for us,” St. Peters seventh grader Maddie Cline said.

“All of us need to show our respect,” classmate Claire Brooks said.

From his vantage point in front of the Downtown Grocery, AMVETS commander Rick Caldwell of Columbus watched as a long line of firefighters stepped forward in attention the moment the procession became visible north of 17th Street.

By the time it reached Caldwell, he could see people shoulder-to-shoulder lining the streets in the rain from the Coca-Cola Bottling Company four blocks south to the funeral home.

“To have the streets lined up and have the American flags out to honor a fallen soldier, what more could you ask for?” Caldwell asked. “Too many don’t participate in recognizing the fallen who gave their lives for our freedom. But this is our best way to say thank you.”

Although many people, especially children, chatted in the rain while waiting for the motorcade to arrive, an immediate hush fell upon the crowd as seven officers on motorcycles leading the procession arrived.

The bikers entered south of the funeral home and parked along an alleyway. After the entire procession arrived, a military honor guard slowly and reverently approached the hearse, where Hunter’s widow Whitney was waiting.

They carried Sgt. Hunter’s casket into the funeral home at 11:46 a.m.

Alan Trisler, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Local 89 and a member of the procession, expressed appreciation for the turnout along the route.

“There were entire businesses who obviously said ‘Hey, everybody outside,’” Trisler said. “The assisted-living facilities had people in wheelchairs out there, with caretakers holding umbrellas over them. It seemed anybody and everybody was showing their support for a local fallen hero.“

Stumpy Gross, a six-year veteran from Marion, and member of the Freedom Riders motorcycle group in the procession, said he was amazed that no one along the packed route was discouraged by the rain.

“There were a couple times when my tears started coming out,” Gross said. “These people really care.”

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.