Hunter Payne

Here, take the end of this bit of thread and let’s see if we can stitch together patches of human fabric, as if we were making a contemporary America quilt. Sewing together individual life panels, music, meditation, east coast, west coast, finance, charity and action. Our patchwork does not need to be linear, in fact good art often isn’t. So where to begin, which two panels of our quilt should we join first?

I know: charity and action. That is our beginning.

In 2004, when the Boxing Day Tsunami pummelled over a dozen countries, particularly  devastating Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, where over two hundred thousand people died, Hunter Payne was as horrified as the rest of us. But he quickly moved beyond that horror into action and founded a charity that, fifteen years later, continues to grow: Aid Still Required.

Hunter’s initial effort to raise money was based on the idea to produce and sell a compilation CD involving famous musicians. Although Hunter has made his living since the 1980s in finance and investment, he’s also a professional musician with two albums to his credit, One Last Chance and Nailed. He also has an old pal who served under President Bill Clinton as an Ambassador. Hunter hoped that sax playing Clinton would come on board. While the former president turned down that request, he did agree to endorse the project through his UN Office. With his music connections, and Clinton’s UN endorsement, Hunter secured the rights, gratis, to songs from major artists like Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and Maroon 5.

That was the good news. Less so was the time it took to deal with the legal realities of nailing down the rights of so many artists and, therefore, many publishing houses, a process involving lawyers and lawyers and lawyers and, after all that, some lawyers. Perhaps frustrated, but never deterred, Hunter released the CD. Now here’s the interesting thing. By this time, the first responders had come and gone and the organizations where the money was earmarked for proper distribution, like the Clinton Foundation, said they no longer needed money for those disaster areas.

Two things happened. First, Hunter travelled to Indonesia and Sri Lanka to see firsthand how well things had progressed. What he saw were levels of destruction that looked as if they’d just occurred. While the first responders had done their job in attending to immediate needs, it was obvious so much more support was required. Second, at this time, Jeff Skoll of Participant Media (a company involved in, among other projects, producing award winning films such as Spotlight and Lincoln) reached out to Hunter regarding a group that actress Mia Farrow was putting together to address the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Hunter became involved by working with a group of NBA players, like Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, to put together a series of Public Service Announcements (PSAs) which aired on CNN, ESPN and Fox Sports.

The confluence of these activities led to what Hunter calls the creation of Aid Still Required as an “accidental charity”. The NBA players had been provided with t-shirts emblazoned with Aid Still Required and chose to wear those when recording their PSAs. A recognizable symbol was introduced to the world, one that spoke to an understanding Hunter had come to in his travels to Indonesia. While first responders are critical in the days immediately after a disaster, the support required not only for infrastructure but also for traumatized human beings goes on for years, particularly in less developed countries. A reality confirmed for Hunter when Aid Still Required became involved in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Hunter has come to see Aid Still Required as “second responders”, with a focus on field programs to foster self-reliance in the most neglected communities, along with expansive outreach campaigns to continue returning public awareness to forgotten issues. Financial support for devastated communities does not end when the media leaves; that is when the re-build process begins and on-going support is required.

Canadian basketball superstar Steve Nash during a PSA for Aid Still Required

On-going support, especially in chronically poor, underdeveloped countries like Haiti means focusing on enabling citizens to help themselves. In Haiti, Aid Still Required has developed programs dealing with everything from adult literacy, to building a school, to helping women deal not only with the trauma of the earthquake but also of rape, a terrorizing phenomena in the weeks and months following the disaster. Supporting these women includes expanding life skills to enable them to keep their families together.

Hunter was in New Orleans when I called him to review some of the notes I’d gathered through an email exchange, to follow up on some gaps of information I had. Hearing his voice brought to mind a clear picture of this tall, lanky, white haired friend my wife Barb and I first met a couple of years ago in Santa Monica after we started to attend the Transcendental Meditation centre. The practice of TM is central to Hunter’s life, his involvement stretching back to 1968 when, at twenty years old, he followed up on a notion to meditate after seeing a photo of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with the Beatles. He immediately sought out a teacher in the Boston area where he grew up and lived, finding one in Terry Gufstason, and the Beatles connection continued. Terry is  “Jojo” from the Beatles Get Back. A TM teacher, originally from Tucson, Arizona,  Terry met John Lennon in California’s Sequoia National Park while working as a ranger. Listen to the opening verse of Get Back and you’ll get the reference. TM connections to Beatles songs are plentiful. Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence has long been a TM teacher in Florida, learning the practice while living in India where she refused to break away from meditation no matter how hard the various Beatles called for Dear Prudence to come out and play. 

Before practicing TM, and eventually becoming a teacher himself, Hunter learned to play guitar and began writing songs, performing in Boston and New York clubs at 18 years old with his brother John. By the early ’70s Hunter became good enough that legendary record producer John Hammond approached him. If you are unaware how legendary John Hammond is let this suffice: he signed Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and some Montreal guy named Leonard Cohen, for Columbia Records. I’ll let you look up his earlier work, primarily in jazz, with musicians stretching back to Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman. When John Hammond approached him, Hunter, of course, said…no.

What…? He said no to John Hammond?! Barb got to know Hunter much better than I did early on and I think she first told me that the reason Hunter hadn’t pursued music as a career had to do with performance anxiety, what we often call stage fright.

On the phone with Hunter, as I scribble away in my study, I confirm these facts. He tells me the reason he gave Hammond not to sign was because the offer was only for him and not his brother. But his brother, after hearing the news, told Hunter to call Hammond back immediately and take the deal. Hunter did not. Hunter tells me that, deep down, he knows the real reason he turned down the offer was because he was afraid to be on stage, live, performing night after night. As I listen to him it’s hard for me to reconcile that truth with the image I have of Hunter. I think of him walking toward me in Santa Monica and there’s a Paul Newman quality to him, loose limbed, easy moving, full of subtle confidence without a hint of arrogance. Looking at all that calm, you just don’t picture self-doubt. Appearances deceive and Hunter’s fifty year practice of TM moves him beneath appearances to a place where he knows and accepts himself; yet, also, to continually challenge himself.

Hunter in Haiti

He never gave up music, recording his first album in 2000 and his second in 2004; he simply didn’t follow that path professionally. It was during the time he ran the Boston TM centre that other paths opened up, including a time in the ’70s where he participated in a program to teach meditation to high performing collegiate and professional basketball players. After that he was asked to go to Los Angeles to assist the TM movement’s launch of a non-profit television station, KSCI. The objective of TM’s television station was to broadcast only good news stories. When Hunter finished his work with the station he knew one thing: he wanted to stay in Southern California. 

Serendipity is a funny thing. A friend and fellow meditator, who was with an investment firm, approached Hunter about coming to work for him. Hunter clearly stated his full and complete knowledge of the financial world: you spell stocks “s-t-o-c-k-s” and bonds “b-o-n-d-s”. That was it — everything that Hunter knew of that world. Convinced he could learn and thrive, the friend offered Hunter a position anyway, promising a weekly paycheque while he studied. At the end of studying, Hunter joined the firm full time. How did that turn out? Well, he spent thirty years in the investment industry, working as an executive with some of America’s leading companies.

Investments, music, even a foray into acting. Hunter took acting classes for a while in the ’90s, partly to deal with his performance anxiety, and it did lead to one film. Ironically a bio-pic of a musician, 1950s sensation Ritchie Valens. Hunter has an off-screen speaking role as a baseball broadcaster in La Bamba. Writer’s like me love irony.

It’s hard not to see irony in Hunter’s surname. A guy named Payne spends most of his time these days trying to ease suffering. Hunter’s focus now is mostly Aid Still Required, particularly with Haiti. There appears to be no end to suffering in the world but, for people like Hunter, an inability to see the end does not translate to hopelessness. It leads to action, creating a warm quilt to provide comfort to others.

Check out Aid Still Required to learn more and see how you can help.

For my next Profile, I turn my attention to a leading Canadian environmentalist and crime writer, my good friend Ken Ogilvie.

I hope you come back.

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

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