BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – His candle burned at both ends.
Lee, his younger sister, said that even as a child, John Jay Runnion was the life of the party.
“He went and went and went,” she said.
And for more than five decades, John made a run of it. Born in Ohio, he’d graduated high school in Kentucky, graduated college in Colorado and successfully begun a career in Tennessee. He’d eventually moved to Birmingham and settled down with his family: a wife and three boys.
But that was the old John, his sister said. The new John had been different.
In 2018, two weeks before Christmas, John Jay Runnion – the old John, the new John – the only John his sister had ever known – was found dead on a picnic table in Avondale Park, his sleeping bag zipped up to his shoulders, according to a coroner’s report. The low temperature the night before John’s death was 25 degrees.
John was not alone. John Jay Runnion was one of at least four men facing homelessness in Jefferson County who died over the last decade following exposure to the cold.
The life and death of John Jay Runnion
From the start, John Runnion was a firecracker.
“If there was a party within ten miles, John was in the middle of it,” his sister Lee said. “He was everybody’s friend.”
John was born in 1957 to an upper-middle class family in Van Wert, Ohio. Before John had started school, the family moved to Iowa, where his father worked as a general manager for the Angus Journal, a cattle magazine.
By the time John had reached the third grade, his parents’ relationship had broken down, ending in divorce. The break-up changed the family dynamic.
“Back then, it was awful being a divorced woman in a small town,” Lee explained. “Divorce back then carried a stigma.”
So when John and Lee’s elder sister married and moved with her husband to Henderson, Kentucky, the family followed. John and Lee would finish their high school years there, graduating from Henderson High School in 1975. Both siblings, too, would head to Colorado for college: Lee at Metropolitan State College and John at the University of Colorado.
There, at UC, John wanted to play football, but his size got in the way.
“He was too small,” his sister said. “So he decided the next best thing to do to be ‘in the party’ was to be a cheerleader.”
He loved the gig, his sister said: “By the end, he was on a first-name basis with the president of the university.”
Soon, after graduating with a degree in business administration, John was climbing the ladder in Memphis, Tennessee, at the Trammell Crow Company, a major real estate firm.
“I know how to work,” John wrote in an ad for the company not long after he’d moved to Memphis. “I am committed to make things happen.”
John’s career took off. He became the youngest partner in Trammell Crow history. When he made partner, Lee said, John transferred from Memphis to Birmingham, where he settled down.
The new John
Then, John and Lee’s mother died. She’d starved herself to death, Lee said.
“She got to the point where she couldn’t eat anything because she said everything was bad for her,” Lee explained. “And pretty soon she couldn’t eat anything at all.”
Lee, who had stayed in Colorado and pursued a career as an accountant, said she remembers visiting Birmingham to see John and his family in 1998 following their mother’s death.
She remembers visiting Sloss Furnace. She remembers the good food. She remembers a happy family.
“When we were there, my three nephews started down on us,” she said. “They wanted a tree house.”
And they got it.
“We spent almost the whole two weeks we were with them building a tree house in their backyard,” she said.
However, Lee said that over time, things began to change for John. The old John was fading. The new John was coming to the fore.
Lee takes a moment to reflect as she remembers the change.
“It hurts so bad that part of you wants to block it out,” she explains.
John abandoned his family – his wife and three kids – according to his sister.
“He wouldn’t give her a divorce, and he abandoned them,” she said.
She learned that John’s business partner had bought him out. The family had sold the house.
At one point, John had been sleeping in a rental house in a sleeping bag, she’d heard, unable to accept the circumstances he’d found himself in.
In 2016, Lee flew John out to Colorado after their father’s death. She remembers him being subdued during the trip, but “not like he became.”
Gradually, John began living on the streets.
“Church people would talk him into living with them, and he’d do that for a while,” Lee said.
But eventually – seemingly inevitably – John would end up back on the street.
A view from a son
Tucker Runnion was 10 years old when his father disappeared.
“It seemed pretty instantaneous,” Tucker said. “It was like one day he was him, and the next day he was gone.”
Today, Tucker is 27 years old and works as a construction general superintendent.
Of his siblings, Tucker said he’s the only one who really kept in touch with John after he left.
Every once in a while, he’d get coffee with his dad.
“It was never about him,” Tucker said of the meetings. “He wanted to make it about me.”
John would ask for updates about his son’s life – about the moments he was missing every day.
“He always assured me that everything was fine and that his spirit never died,” Tucker said. “He was always enthusiastic and joyful.”
Tucker said John’s philosophy had always been clear – work hard, play hard. One of his fondest memories of his dad, he said, is hanging off the side of a Chevy Suburban as John did donuts in a parking lot.
The last time he saw his dad, Tucker said, he was about to head to Atlanta to go to Thanksgiving with his mom.
“I saw him in the rearview mirror walking down the hill by Vulcan,” Tucker said. “And I almost turned around.”
‘God must be punishing me’
Just after 10 a.m. on Dec. 12, 2018, John Jay Runnion was found dead on a picnic table in Avondale Park, under a pavilion a stone’s throw from the library, according to local authorities. John wore three jackets – one black, one brown, one blue. He wore two shirts and a pair of gray jeans. He wore two toboggans. He lay bundled in a sleeping bag zipped to his shoulders. Black ankle socks covered his hands.
The night before, the low in Birmingham had been 25 degrees.
First responders “attempted life-saving procedures with no success,” according to the report, which said that at the time of his death, Runnion weighed only 87 pounds. His death was accidental, the coroner’s office determined, and resulted from a cardiac event spurred by malnutrition and hypothermia.
During their investigation, law enforcement interviewed a man living at the address that had been listed on John’s ID. He’d last seen John six or so months earlier, he said. When John left, he’d had a farewell message, the man said: “God must be punishing me.”
Lee Runnion did not know her brother weighed so little at the time of his death. She gasped when she heard the news.
“That’s mother,” she said.
In the years since John’s death, Lee said she’s thought deeply about what happened to her brother. She said looking back, she felt John lived his entire life in a manic state, always on the move. He was always going, going, going. And then he was gone.
“I think he burned himself out after years of living like that,” she said. “He just burned himself out.”
She said that one day, she’d gotten a call from someone phoning on John’s behalf. The man said that John had lost the phone Lee’d gotten for him. There was no need to keep paying the bill, the man told her. She could send a new phone, Lee suggested. But John didn’t want that.
“I think he’d just given up,” Lee said. “He was just like mother. I think he’d just given up and decided to die the slow way.”
After John’s death, some of his family made the trip to Birmingham for his funeral. After the service, she said their older brother suggested they visit Avondale Park, where John had passed away.
“I was happy,” Lee said of the visit, her voice cracking for the first time. “It was a nice park. He died in a nice place.”
Kerry Wayne Washington
When first responders reached Kerry Washington on Christmas Eve in 2013, he was still alive.
Washington was found laying on the steps of a shuttered pest control business in Birmingham’s North Titusville neighborhood, where he often sat. He was unresponsive.
The low temperature in the city the night before was 19 degrees.
First responders rushed the 56-year-old to UAB hospital, according to a coroner’s report, and paramedics initiated CPR en route. When Washington arrived at UAB’s emergency room, his body temperature was 71 degrees.
Emergency room staff were able to revive Washington temporarily, the report noted, but soon, all vital signs of Washington’s life had ceased. He was dead.
The coroner ruled Washington’s death an accident. He’d died of hypothermia.
Washington’s younger brother, Kenny, said he and his brother grew up on Birmingham’s Southside, where their father was a baker and their mother was a homemaker. Both graduated from Parker High School.
Washington’s younger brother was facing difficulties, Kenny said, and he feels that more should have been done to help him.
“People who are homeless can’t get no help from the government,” he said. “And a lot of it has to do with rules that are bananas.”
Kenny believes people like his brother are often hesitant to accept services from institutions because of the strings that can be attached to the help and the hurdles that individuals can face in accessing it.
“A lot of times people aren’t going to go into homeless shelters because they have too many rules,” he said. “People don’t think nothing of people who live on the street.”
Kenny, who’s fighting to recover from a stroke, was frank about what he missed most about his brother.
“I miss that he ain’t here no more,” he said.
Randal William Canant
Randal William Canant was “basically about as good of a person as you’d like to meet,” according to his brother, David.
He had had difficulties throughout his life, David explained, but who hadn’t?
Randal was mild-mannered and easygoing, who “got along with everybody,” David said.
On Dec. 17, 2020, Randal Canant was found dead behind a Circle K in Homewood, damp and clad only in jeans, socks, and boots. A sleeping bag and other clothing lay nearby. He was 60 years old.
The night before, the low temperature in Homewood had been 36 degrees.
Randal’s death, the coroner concluded, was accidental and had been caused by hypothermia.
David thought for a moment when asked whether any policy could have helped prevent Randal’s death. He said any “decent-sized” city should have at least one warming center open anytime the temperature becomes a risk to the health of those living on the street.
“I’m sure my brother wasn’t the only person that could’ve benefitted from those resources,” he said.
Stanley Wayne Wilson, Jr.
In January 2019, Stanley Wayne Wilson, Jr. died in the shadow of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham. He was 39.
Wilson was found lying unresponsive on his back on a small concrete porch behind the church, according to a coroner’s report. He was wearing pants, socks, and a single blue shoe on his left foot. A pair of torn green and blue boxers was positioned awkwardly across his torso.
Paramedics pronounced Wilson dead shortly after arriving.
The low temperature in Birmingham the night before had been 38 degrees.
Wilson was recognized as facing homelessness, according to the report, and had been served food by St. Andrew’s on occasion.
His death, the coroner concluded, was caused by hypothermia.
Attempts to reach Wilson’s family for this story were unsuccessful.
Tucker Runnion remembers receiving the call from his mom informing him of his dad’s death.
“I just thought about the last time I saw him,” Tucker said. The time he hadn’t turned around. He wishes he had. “I always think that I can make things different, you know?”
Lee Runnion feels John’s death was the calm after a storm, the sleep after a manic day’s work. John, she felt, had been a firework, and his death was the dark night sky left in the wake of the colorful show.
His candle had burned at both ends, she said.
It did not last the night.
By Edna St. Vincent Millay
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!