John Cunningham deftly bottled the history of the Garden State—and Drew—for generations.
by Christopher Hann
In the opening scene of the memoir he was working on at the time of his death in June, John T. Cunningham ’38 recalls his earliest memory. It is autumn 1918. He is 3 years old. He, his mother and his brother Guy ’36 are on their hands and knees in their apartment in north Newark, hiding from another bill collector. “Such poverty dominated my childhood,” Cunningham writes, “and memories of those days resonate often and bitterly, even today.”
From those early days of destitution, Cunningham wrung a life of more than 96 years that was rich with achievement. He was an author, historian, filmmaker and raconteur extraordinaire who quite literally wrote the book on Drew University. University in the Forest, a history of his alma mater, was first printed in 1972 by a publishing company that Cunningham had founded two years earlier.
“Even 40 years later, John’s narrative remains a treasure of university lore,” former Drew President Robert Weisbuch remarked in his eulogy during Cunningham’s funeral at Morristown United Methodist Church.
Cunningham considered himself a journalist more than a historian, for it was in newspapers that he found his footing as a writer. While still a senior at Morristown High School, he worked as a stringer for the Daily Record, earning eight cents per line of copy. Later he got a job at the Newark Evening News, where in 1952 he was assigned to drive around New Jersey and produce histories of each of the state’s 21 counties.
“It became a dream assignment,” he would later write, “that dramatically transformed me and changed my life forever.”
Over the ensuing six decades, Cunningham wrote hundreds of magazine articles and more than 50 books—most of them about his beloved native state. (He also won an Emmy for writing a documentary about immigration.) He wrote books on Newark, Paterson, the Great Swamp, the Jersey Shore, colonial New Jersey, baseball, railroads, Thomas Edison, New Jersey’s role in the American Revolution and so much more. This Is New Jersey, first published in 1953, has never gone out of print. You, New Jersey and the World has been assigned reading for generations of fourth-graders. New Jersey: A Mirror on America became a standard high school text.
At his home in Florham Park, Cunningham wrote nearly every day, even toward the end of his life, when he needed a walker to perambulate but no help at all while seated before a keyboard. “I overflow with awareness,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “I guess I’m so filled with New Jersey that it’s a love I have.”
Cunningham majored in psychology at Drew and played baseball under legendary coach Doc Young. He met his future wife, Dorothy Behre, on campus. She died in 1995, after a nearly 60-year marriage. In the last years of his life Cunningham kept company with Judy Kendall, a retired schoolteacher who had used Cunningham’s works in her classroom for decades before she ever met him. In the Winter 2012 issue of Drew Magazine, Cunningham recounted his days in the Forest with Herman Rosenberg ’37, a classmate and baseball teammate who called Cunningham “the best product that Drew has turned out.”
In the foreword to University in the Forest, Cunningham acknowledged the conflict inherent in writing impartially about a place he held so dear. “Drew is Alma Mater,” he wrote. “It is memories, nostalgia, cause for gratitude. It was for me and thousands more like me, the place where we found hope and in that precious nugget found ourselves.”