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April 3, 2014

Obituary: James Cunningham

Jim CunninghamJames V. Cunningham Sr., professor emeritus in the School of Social Work, died March 28, 2014, at Saint Barnabas Medical Center as a result of complications from a stroke. He was 91.

Born in Chicago, Cunningham earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in economics from Notre Dame before receiving his doctorate from Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs in 1971.

Cunningham was active in the community, specializing in neighborhood organization while also engaging in local political activity and contributing to Pitt’s School of Social Work for over 40 years.

“He was an amazing person in the sense that he had deep beliefs and commitments to social justice,” said Morton Coleman, faculty emeritus in social work as well as a friend to Cunningham. “He was a man of all seasons, a renaissance man so to speak.”

Joining the U.S. Navy as a supply and payroll officer in 1944, Cunningham was on board the DD-877 USS Perkins that was in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, as the Japanese surrendered.

Moving to Pittsburgh in 1959, Cunningham worked with ACTION-Housing, piloting a neighborhood initiative to address local community issues, before joining the Pitt faculty. In addition, he played a key role in forming the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Alliance, representing the citizens of Homewood, East Liberty, Oakland and Shadyside.

With his support, the School of Social Work created the Community Practice Award in 2006 that annually recognizes a student who has made a significant community practice contribution to the planning and implementation of a community-related effort.

In tribute to his Irish heritage, Cunningham forged a bond between Pitt and University College Dublin and created a pipeline where not only would Irish exchange students come to Pitt to pursue their master’s degrees in social work, but they would stay at Cunningham’s longtime home on Wallingford Street in North Oakland.

“He was my teacher, mentor, friend and colleague here at the school,” said Tracy M. Soska, faculty member in the school. “He was a remarkable man in many respects. He was a tremendous mentor to me and others.”

Soska also said Cunningham had a deep commitment to the Catholic Church.

Cunningham’s work with the city included a stint as the Democratic Party ward chairman of Pittsburgh’s 7th Ward while also playing an instrumental role in the election of Pittsburgh Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri.

In addition, Cunningham was at the forefront of engaging the School of Social Work and the University in ailing local communities as the steel industry was declining. During the 1980s, he helped lead the River Communities Studies Project, which spurred new initiatives such as the Aliquippa Alliance for Unity and Development.

His wife, Rita Q. Cunningham, died in 2010.

He took pride in being a father of 10, all of whom survive him: Anne Moore, Mary Gilman, James Cunningham Jr., Mark Cunningham, Harry Cunningham, Steve Cunningham, David Cunningham, Paul Cunningham, Patrick Cunningham and John Cunningham.

Also surviving are 21 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

His legacy extends far beyond the School of Social Work.

“Thousands of students are doing terrific work all across the country based on things that Jim taught them,” Coleman said. “He’s always been concerned with the University’s concerns with equity and racial justice. He was himself deeply committed to Pitt.”

—Alex Oltmanns