The Drew community lost a distinguished and devoted alumnus when John T. Cunningham C’38 died at age 96 on June 7. An award-winning author, respected historian – known as “Mr. Jersey” for his role in championing the state’s historical significance – John was associated with Drew for eight decades.
He once said that, for students, “Drew was the place where we found hope and . . . ourselves.” In no small way, Drew found itself through John.
John published University in the Forest: The Story of Drew University in 1972. The book, revised in two subsequent editions, chronicles not only a century of institutional milestones and measures, but more importantly tells the story of the people and times that shaped the university as we know it today.
Even forty years later, John’s narrative remains a treasure of university lore. Drew’s present-day University Archivist says that the book is “Never far from my desk, and essential to my work.” “In writing University in the Forest,” reflects President Bob Weisbuch, “John opened a window to Drew’s past that will help current and future generations of students, faculty and staff understand their shared Drew roots.”
John went on to write numerous articles for Drew magazine on university legends, from Ezra Tipple to Dorothy Young. These articles mirror his larger body of work in which he brought to life such New Jersey icons as Thomas Edison, Clara Maas, the Jersey Shore and Jockey Hollow. While others may have overlooked the significance of these subjects, John saw something worth his, and our, attention. Drewids and New Jerseyans are indebted to John for preserving these stories which might have otherwise been lost, and for passing them down to us in his inimitably incisive and witty voice.
Over the years, John received numerous awards, from the NJ Literary Hall of Fame to an Emmy. Thankfully, Drew was among the institutions able to express appreciation to John during his life. In 1955 he was the very first recipient of Drew’s Alumni Achievement Award in the Arts after the publication of his book “This is New Jersey,” the seminal work of New Jersey state history. In 1976 Drew conferred an honorary degree to John, in recognition of his roles as President of New Jersey State Historical Society, Founder and Chairman of the New Jersey Historical Commission, and Vice-chair of the Bicentennial Committee, and described him as “chronicler of the American spirit as reflected in New Jersey”. In 1980 John was nominated for the Drew Alumni Service award in gratitude for his leadership as President of Alumni Association and that same year he became the first Drew alumnus to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa national honor society. Then in 2008, as the Drew surveyed his extraordinary career in journalism, history and education, John was presented one of only two Lifetime Achievement Awards given to Drew alumni.
Drew proudly claims John as an alumnus and, perhaps, some small part in his achievements. John was working on a memoir in which he notes that Dr. James McClintock, his psychology professor at Drew, was the first teacher to recognize and encourage his writing abilities. John also launched his journalism career at Drew as a writer and sports editor for the student newspaper beginning in his sophomore year. By his senior year, he had landed his first professional job as a journalist with the Morristown Record. The rest is, well, history.
At Drew, John is often quoted from the foreword to the 1990 edition of University in the Forest in which he muses that “The Forest and its university are one . . . The Forest and its university endure.” There is no doubt that John and his stories are one. John and his stories endure.