I first met Jim Cunningham (“Longtime Pitt Professor Devoted to Social Issues,” March 31 news obituary) in the Pittsburgh airport in the summer of 1997, having left Dublin to pursue graduate studies in community organization at the University of Pittsburgh. For the following two years, I had the privilege of living in the then Cunningham family home on Wallingford Street, Shadyside.
As I got to know the Cunningham family more and more, Jim would tell me stories about his own life. One I recall was about his service in the U.S. Navy and his experience on board a ship in the Pacific prior to the bombing of Hiroshima. Therein lies the sociological interpretation of life: biography intersecting with history.
Perhaps Jim’s experience as a student at Notre Dame was to be the most influential. Here he became a close friend of Holy Cross priest Father Louis Putz, a strong proponent of lay-led Catholic Action. The ideas of Catholic Action — the importance of lay empowerment — were to animate and guide Jim’s working life. Such were his gifts that Jim could have opted for almost any career, but the disadvantaged in society were fortunate that he chose social work.
Despite his many work-related achievements as a community organizer and scholar, it was love of family that defined Jim’s life. Of course, this was apparent in his love for his late wife, Rita, but also in his concern for his children. Jim Cunningham was the kind of man every society needs: full of humanity, integrity and wisdom.
When I phoned him, especially in his last few years, he frequently had difficulty hearing and might occasionally get mixed up but always ended our conversation with the simple words “God bless.” Even then, Jim’s faith came through.
Department of Sociology
National University of Ireland,
County Kildare, Ireland