Feeling Another’s Pain: Father Pens Poem About Stranger Who Froze To Death


No one knew why he pulled away

And curled up in a ball in his room where he stayed

What’s wrong, his father and mother said

I’m hearing strange voices inside of my head

Ronald Hunter Jr. froze to death last week in Buffalo, New York.

As reported by Buffalo News reporter Lou Michel, the 21-year-old Hunter was homeless and mentally ill when he died from hypothermia alone and disoriented in two-degree weather with a wind chill that hit 20 degrees below zero. A surveillance video camera on a nearby building captured his final moments in a desolate section of a business park. He had removed his jacket and was trying to take off his shirt.

His father told the newspaper that Hunter first began acting strange shortly after he turned eighteen. “I found him curled up in a ball in the corner of a bedroom, and I said, “What’s wrong, baby?”

“I’m hearing voices telling me to kill myself,” he replied. His parents called crisis services and they diagnosed him with schizophrenia and behavioral disorders. “But because he was eighteen, it was up to him if he wanted help.”

When Chester Ray Maternick read the Buffalo newspaper account of Hunter’s death, he began to weep.

  Maternick, a 60-year-old U.S. Defense Department veteran of the Afghan War, had never met Hunter but the Charlottesville, Virginia father was upset because he also has a son with a serious mental illness. A regular reader of my blog, Maternick alerted me about Hunter’s death after reading about it on the Treatment Advocacy Center’s website.

“The story hit me real hard because as I read it, I thought of my own son and so many other sons and daughters out there who struggle every day with serious mental illness — this could have been any one of them…My son walked out of the house in January 2010 and disappeared for ten days before he snapped out of it.

During the time he was gone, he stayed in an abandoned house and a baseball dugout on a Little League field. “This story hit me hard because of how incredibly alone Ronald Hunter must have been. It is almost as if Society at large just abandoned him.

How advanced a society are we when things like this can still happen?”

After reading about Hunter’s death, Maternick felt inspired to pen a poem that he called “The Ballad of Ronald Hunter Jr.” He sent it to reporter Michel and the Buffalo newspaper printed it along with a story about Maternick and his son, Andrew Neil Maternick, now 26.

While the senior Maternick was serving our country in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013, Andrew had a psychotic episode and stabbed his younger brother in the arm. He spent eight months in a Virginia jail before being found not guilty by reason of insanity. He currently is in a state hospital receiving treatment for schizo-affective disorder and post-traumatic stress.

Wanting to do something to help change our system, Maternick established a Facebook page called Help Not Jail with the mission of “stopping the criminalization of those who suffer from mental illness and emphasizing getting them help.”

I often write about the importance of us sharing our stories. It is one way we can bring about necessary reforms.  Maternick’s actions remind us that we are not alone in our efforts to stop preventable tragedies. All of us who have a mental illness or who love someone who does are on the same path. We need to fix a broken system that causes unnecessary suffering and deaths.

Robert Hunter Jr. should not have died. No one with mental illness should freeze to death on the streets. We need to create a well-funded, inclusive mental health care system that provides adequate services to those in need. We shouldn’t have homelessness in such a rich country. We also need to pass sensible laws that acknowledge that when someone is severely mentally impaired, not intervening when they put themselves at the risk of death is a cruel act.


The Ballad of Ronald Hunter Jr. 

By  C. R. Maternick 

No one knew why he pulled away

And curled up in a ball in his room where he stayed

What’s wrong, his father and mother said

I’m hearing strange voices inside of my head


He was just eighteen not sure of himself

It was up to him if he wanted help

For acting strangely and health quickly sinking

A disease of the mind that crippled his thinking


Mom, I love you, the last words he said

With a hug and a nod he left with a friend

Determined to make it get a job, pay the rent

Downtown in Buffalo in a shelter time spent


A stiff wind rides this code blue night

To minus twenty no warmth in sight

Only a camera’s lens saw it all

This homeless man stand, then fall.


Body overheated on this coldest of nights

Trying to find a way to get inside

Shirt unbuttoned his jacket shed

Won’t be long before he’s dead.


On the ground in this industrial complex

Dwindling mist from his last breath

On this cold and hard concrete he lay  

Not far from the Bridge where Bailey crosses Broadway


Why did he laugh what made him cry

So many questions, he didn’t have to die.

The youngest of seven, his life ended sooner

The name of this man was Ronald Hunter Jr. 


In this country of gold and rich choices

Not many cared about this man who heard voices

The youngest of seven, his life ended sooner

The name of this man was Ronald Hunter Jr.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.