"When we were kids in Tiltonsville, Ohio, our backyard was the Ohio River," Charles Cunningham reminisced. "I remember, when I was 4 or 5, the show boats arriving. The calliopes were playing. The smoke was coming out. They'd secure the boat on our property. As soon as the gangplank hit, my cousin Jack and I would run up and onto the boat."
Nearly eight decades later, Mr. Cunningham still has that verve that served him as symphony musician and self-made sales representative, spurred the restorations of Historic Hanna's Town and of a 1776 stone farm house, and spawned the birth of a food pantry that has grown to a community service agency that reaches out to three states and has served thousands of families.
Most importantly, he is the father of three sons and four daughters, grandfather of 18 and great-grandfather of six. He and wife Aline celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last year.
"She impressed me so much with good faith," Mr. Cunningham said of meeting the woman who would become his wife.
Family and faith are high on Mr. Cunningham's priority list, which also includes a commitment to community fed by a broad appreciation of history.
In his youth, Mr. Cunninghan wanted to be a musician and he got a good start in the Navy where he learned to play the tuba and bass violin. By the time he completed training, World War II had ended.
"They took a bunch of us out of the music school and put us on goodwill tours across the Atlantic," he said.
After his service commitment he left to continue studies at West Liberty College and played with the Wheeling Symphony and at dances throughout the region.
When he married, he realized he needed a more stable income. Training with Tappan Stove Co. as a sales representative led to his family's relocation to Greensburg. Mr. Cunningham said he logged a lot of miles over more than four decades as a factory representative.
But he was toughened for it early on. As a child he lived on a farm and his duties included collecting buckets of water from a spring when he woke up. Then he fed the chickens and cleaned their coop, milked the three family cows and walked a mile and a half to his one-room school.
Much later in life, he opened Springhill Country Furniture and Gifts in Greensburg, selling high-end furnishings appropriate to historic homes. The Unity farm house that his family reclaimed from near-ruin became a second store location after the children reached adulthood. His sons now run the furniture business, and he and his wife live in a smaller stone building nearby that was once the summer kitchen and carpenter shop for the main house.
A cherry corner cupboard that the Cunninghams tracked down and returned to the farmhouse in the mid-1960s was purchased in the late 1970s by Westmoreland Museum of American Art, where it is permanently displayed. Mr. Cunningham offers historic tours of the 1776 building (Fridays by appointment at 724-834-1894).
Mr. Cunningham's interests range from his Scottish heritage to Hanna's Town, the 1773 settlement near Greensburg that was the first seat of Westmoreland County and the first English court west of the Allegheny Mountains. He was president of a Greensburg planning group that made the decision to purchase the historic site and begin archaeological excavations. Mr. Cunningham and his son Joe constructed an A-frame with an open floor that could be moved about the site and allowed for work to continue in the winter. A painting by Mr. Cunningham of the Hanna's Town project, with A-frame, hangs in the couple's home.
The idea for his post-retirement project, Christian Layman Corps, began to germinate during prayer breakfasts he originated that were attended by a half-dozen fellow parishioners of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Greensburg. The group, founded in 1990, provides help to the needy.
In 2009, the Diocese of Greensburg awarded him the Communities of Salt and Light Award for humanitarianism, sponsored by Catholic Charities. He had been nominated by corps volunteers, who wrote that Mr. Cunningham "recognizes the need to preserve the dignity of the poor and to create some normalcy in their lives."
As to his achievements to date, "Actually I was blessed by God that I had abilities and I was able to excel at everything," Mr. Cunningham said.
Mary Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.