By Morgan Bryce
This is the first installment of a four-part series of prominent Opelikans and their favorite Christmas memories or traditions. On behalf of the Opelika Observer staff, we hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season ahead.
For former City of Opelika Community Relations Officer Jan Gunter, the Christmas season is a time to celebrate her faith and reflect on what she said was the greatest gift ever given.
“Without the gift that God gave to us and all the world, I’d still have to be offering sacrifices in the tabernacle for forgiveness. But, that (debt) has already been paid once and for all,” Jan said.
Originally born in McLeansboro, Illinois, Jan and her brother Ned were adopted at a young age from unmarried parents by Dr. Robert and June Hubbard. Later, she and her family relocated to Wekanee, a town in the northern portion of the state well-known for its production of fire-tube boilers.
A fond memory Jan said she has from Christmases was going with her family to visit other churches and places of worship to observe how they celebrated the season.
“In Kewanee, there was both a large Jewish and Catholic population, so we’d go and visit and see Hanukkah and (Advent) services and enjoy learning what they did,” Jan said.
In fall 1977, a newly married Jan, along with her then-husband and daughter Shannon, packed their bags and headed down to Lee County so he could pursue a master’s degree from Auburn University. After he graduated, they divorced, leaving Jan and her daughter alone and nearly 800 miles from home.
With help from her parents, Jan qualified for grants to help fund her nursing school expenses and worked part-time as a receptionist at a local doctor’s office. One evening, she received a visit from Rev. Bob Baggett of First Baptist Church Opelika, who invited her to join a professional singles class taught by her future husband, Guy.
“I told him that I knew how the South felt about divorced women at the time and that I was adopted and that I believed his church would not accept me at all. He told me, ‘I think it’s great that you were adopted because God had a plan for your life,’ … and with that he convinced me to come try it out,” Jan said.
Though it was not “love at first sight,” Jan said she quickly formed a tight bond with Guy and his family, who welcomed her without question.
“My father and mother in-law opened their arms and fell in love with me. They had four boys, and Ms. Gunter said she wanted a daughter but didn’t get one … but said she didn’t realize that God would give her four daughters, the future wives of her sons,” Jan said.
Christmases in the Gunter family were celebrated early so each branch could stay home and together on Christmas Day, but the get-togethers themselves featured meals, laughter and mini piano recitals by some of the children present.
Nearing she and Guy’s 39th wedding anniversary, Jan said their main Christmas traditions now center around visits with their two children and grandchildren, reflect on past Christmases and enjoy the traditions that come with the season.
Following her mother’s passing last year, Jan said she sat down and compiled a list of events from that year – including the passing of her mother- which reminded her of the true spirit of Christmas.
“It wasn’t all pretty, but I saw God’s hand in everything that happened, and it was a time for me to come back and say, ‘thank you for loving me enough that you sent that baby to me for my salvation,’ and for the gifts He’s kept on giving me,” Jan said.