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82-year-old recalls man who died saving his life

"No greater love hath any man than he who lay down his life that another might live."

GRANTS PASS — If you stop to read the memorial plaque alongside Lower River Road, right across the Rogue River from Schroeder Park, you'll find that Bible verse, a version of John 15:13, along with the fact that the plaque was placed by the local Elks Lodge in honor of Clyde Gunter, who died in the river saving a child from drowning.

The plaque doesn't say that the child he saved is Clifford "Buck" Fixsen — or that Fixsen has been bringing the monument back from brambles and disrepair for the past year.

When Fixsen celebrated his 82nd birthday Thursday, he did so thanks to Gunter, who jumped into the river on June 28, 1937, never thinking he would not come out of it alive.

It was 102 degrees that Monday and Fixsen, then 8 years old, and two young pals (including John Reinhart, for whom the Grants Pass park is named, also 8 at the time) were collecting snails to use as bait on their fishing hooks. Though they'd all grown up near the river, none of the boys were strong swimmers.

Fixsen's dad ran a welding shop, where his mother, a member of the Ringuette family, kept the books when she wasn't keeping up the family home on Webster Road.

The boys had hiked about a mile to the spot, right across Lower River Road from the Trahern house.

"But where those doggone snails were on the side of the rocks there, it was slick where they parked," Fixsen recalls.

He slipped and fell into the river, which is deep in that area.

"Before I came up and dog paddled, I was way under and looked up. I couldn't see the top. That was scary." According to the 1937 article in the Daily Courier, Fixsen stopped paddling and started floating on his back while his friends hollered at the Trahern home. Mrs. Trahern couldn't swim either, but flagged down a car. In it were three men who'd been cleaning up after the previous day's Elks Lodge picnic at a spot just down river.

Gunter, 36, was a local florist and owned a greenhouse. He was the best swimmer and jumped in first while Merle Nichols ran downstream and H.D. Eismann went even farther down, fighting through the brambles.

"I stayed afloat until he got to me. He had quite a job holding onto me for awhile," Fixsen recalls, noting that, like many scared swimmers, he fought to push himself up and Gunter down. Nichols, meanwhile, swam out to take Fixsen off Gunter's hands. One of the men struck the boy to quiet him and Nichols swam him to shore, not concerned about Gunter at that point.

But Gunter probably had a heart attack, Fixsen found out later. Or he'd taken in water and was unable to keep afloat. By the time Eismann got to the river, Gunter was under and Nichols, exhausted, could only call to him. Eismann waded in, but couldn't locate Gunter.

"I remember the water being pumped outta me. I was kinda puny, as you can see," Fixsen says, pointing to the news account, which included a photo of him with his dog Topper and a photo of Gunter. "And one of them had hit me, so I was unconscious and full of water."

He didn't find out the fate of Gunter — whose body was found later in the day by boatmen using poles — until well after the event. He was kept in bed for several days to recover and didn't attend Gunter's funeral held three days later. Gunter is buried at Hillcrest Memorial Park.

Fixsen recently did some research on the Gunter family and knows his widow, Marguerite, moved to Portland with their son, Dale, who was 5 years old when his father died. She eventually remarried. Both are now dead.

Though Fixsen moved to Medford with his family and graduated from high school there, he would have been in the Grants Pass class of 1947 and still comes to reunions to keep up with his old friends.

With his second chance at life, Fixsen married his high school sweetheart, Patricia, and they will celebrate their 65th anniversary soon. They had two children, one of whom still is living, with four grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild. He went to work for Darigold and spent a career there, retiring in 1989.

After his experience, it was three years before he approached the riverbank again, he says, but he learned to swim at Riverside Park, where there once was a pool. He eventually became an excellent swimmer and boatman.

Recently, he thought to look at the memorial and ask the Elks Lodge staff about it. He'd assumed they'd kept it up over the years, but the lodge had no record of it. Fixsen asked his daughter and one of her friends to help him put it in order.

"I remember when my uncle and some of my relatives went to help dedicate it," he guesses about 1939, with permission from the Traherns, whose property it was on then. "I was just a kid in grade school when my folks took me down there to see it."

Visits still can choke him up, but on a recent stop, he noted two men were cleaning up even more of the brush in the area. Terry Austin, who lives nearby, and his friend Chris Madding shook hands with Fixsen and heard an abbreviated version of his story.

"That gentleman was a hero to say the least," Madding says.

"Yes." Fixsen says. "My hero."

Edith Decker is features editor for the Daily Courier. Reach her at 541-474-3724 or edecker@thedailycourier.com.