James V. Cunningham Sr: He Cared the Most About What Truly Matters

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Jim Cunningham Sr 1923-2014

We are in Pittsburgh this week, not to write an article and meet the usual ‘interesting local people,’ but instead to say farewell to a distinguished member of the faculty at Pitt and a community leader named James V. Cunningham Sr who died at 91 on March 28. As I’ve gotten older I have paid much closer attention to funerals and how to react and respond when people’s family members or friends pass away.

Someone wrote once that if you have to decide whether to go to the funeral, then the answer is clear. You go. Always be the one who shows up goes this sage advice, always make the effort, and always err on the side of attendance. So many times I have been to a funeral and I saw how it made the family members feel, they are lifted up by your honoring them by just being there.  You don’t need to write a eulogy, though I am proud of the many eulogies I’ve written and delivered over the years.

Jim Cunningham raised ten children with his wife Rita, first in Chicago and then in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood where they bought a big house on Wallingford Street and watched as all of the children grew up to attend college, become successful adults, and bring their own good citizens into the world.  Jim got a PhD and taught at the University of Pittsburgh for decades while helping to raise that giant brood of kids. At the same time was very active in community organizing and social issues in the world and in his neighborhood.

My partner Mary told me many times about Jim’s life goal, which was to end racism in America. He marched during the early 1960s with Martin Luther King, and organized a dialogue group called Race and Reconciliation in his Pittsburgh neighborhood. She remembers him donning his blue coveralls every Saturday to do chores outside their house with his large flock of kids helping him out.  He never gave up on any of his children, infusing each of them with a dose of independence as well as his values that made them all cherish family as he did.

Like most members of his Greatest Generation, Jim served in the US Navy, entering Tokyo Bay in time for the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945.  I remember him proudly wearing a USS Perkins cap at the family reunion we attended last summer at Seven Springs PA.  He held his youngest granddaughter, Leah, surrounded by dozens of Cunninghams young and old, and it was clear that he was terrifically proud of the big brood and happy to be in their company.

A good man like Jim Cunningham doesn’t come around very often.  Mary told me many times about  the way he cared for his beloved wife Rita when the terrible affliction Alzheimers cut short her lucidness. His son Steve, who is disabled, always had a loving home living with Jim when all of the others had grown up and left. He never wavered, and in the end, he will be remembered as a man who cared the most about the things that truly matter the most.