BY ANNE STANTON
GAYLORD — John Head, 91, delivered his last newspaper after decades of stuffing tubes along Gaylord's dark, rural roads.
Head started his 65-mile rural route in Gaylord as usual on Thanksgiving Day, but suffered a stroke later that day. He died on Saturday, said Jay Thompson, who bundles and hauls newspapers for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
The last two days of Head's life were the first that he'd missed due to illness in his 25 years of driving for the Record-Eagle, Thompson said.
Thompson met Head in 1984 when he worked as a newspaper distributor for the Detroit Free Press. Head, who stood just over 5 feet tall, formerly worked in the Upper Peninsula as a tree trimmer, and at times had to trudge through snow as deep as his waist.
"He thought delivering newspapers was the easiest and best job there ever was," he said.
Thompson recalled Head's only absence was a two-day leave for his son's funeral. There was also a small blip three years ago when Head needed a new driver's license, but couldn't get one for lack of a birth certificate. Thompson helped untangle the problem, since Head was hard of hearing.
Head, a Native American, was born in the U.P. He once told Thompson he was dropped off at a Catholic orphanage as a baby.
Thompson discovered that the orphanage burned down before Head's birth records could be transferred to the county seat.
Former U.S. Representative Bart Stupak stepped in and helped out. The Secretary of State agreed to accept Head's military record as proof of citizenship and issued him a temporary driver's license each year since.
In the month it took to sort out a license, Head found someone to take the wheel, said Rich Roxbury, the Record-Eagle circulation director.
Thompson said Head was always cheerful. But driving with him wasn't so pleasant.
"His driving was scary. Absolutely scary. But he knew where he was going. He recognized everything when he saw it, which would be true after driving the route for so many years."
There were some concerns — one shop owner recently reported he saw Head fall in the parking lot, Roxbury said.
"Some people would call, and say, 'This guy is really old. Why don't you take his route from him?'" Roxbury said. "But he was doing a good job. There were no complaints. He lost a lung in World War II, and I had a soft spot in my heart for him."
Head, a Record-Eagle contract employee, was told on Monday that it was probably time to call it quits, Roxbury said.
"He was actually relieved to hear it," Roxbury said.
Head was married, but he and his wife hadn't lived together for 30 years because he didn't want to divorce, Thompson said.
"He was a good Catholic, and I believe it. It took him two hours every night to say his Rosary," Thompson said.
Roxbury said he had the opportunity to talk to Head's wife a few years ago.
"She told me, 'The route is the only thing keeping John alive.' He gets up every morning. It was his thing," Roxbury said.