John Cunningham ’38, noted author and historian, passes away at 96

When John T. Cunningham ’38 passed away on June 7 just four years shy of his 100th birthday, he left behind a rich written legacy. Over the last 60 years, he authored 50 books, frequently focusing on the history of the Garden State. One such book told the story of his alma mater. Cunningham, who was one of Drew’s oldest living alumni, penned “University in the Forest,” a 389-page volume that chronicles the school’s earliest days in the 19th century up to 2002, which is when the most recent addition was published.

“Drew University joins the entire of State of New Jersey in mourning the loss of a cultural icon,” said University President Robert Weisbuch. “In writing ‘University in the Forest,’ 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.”

Cunningham is perhaps best known for his book “This is New Jersey,” which was first published in 1953 and has never gone out of print. He also published several acclaimed textbooks and photo essays throughout his career.

Prior to focusing his writing on historical narratives, Cunningham started his career as a news reporter for the Morristown Record. His first assignment was covering eastern Morris County, which was a responsibility that he held as both a high school student and as an undergraduate at Drew. In presenting him with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, a Drew citation referred to the ways his distinguished career as a journalist shaped his later work as a historian.

“[Cunningham] approaches history with a journalist’s quest for truth and a style that engages non-historians,” read the citation. “His accuracy, his knowledge of New Jersey and his appealing style have earned him recognition as ‘New Jersey’s popular historian,’ as he was named by the New Jersey Historical Association.”

A 1950s review of “The New Jersey Shore” by The Historical Society of Pennsylvania agrees that Cunningham’s writing style made it easy for the general public to learn about local history.

“The book is written in a pleasant newspaper style that makes for easy reading,” reviewer J. Harcourt Givens wrote. “It will be enjoyed by every resident of New Jersey who is interested in his state, as well as by those nonresidents who, like this reviewer, spend each summer at ‘the shore’.”

Cunningham, who was a past winner of Drew’s 1955 Award in the Arts and 1980 Service Award, was a familiar presence on campus from his own undergraduate years through the present. He was a frequent guest during Orientation Week where he would make a popular presentation to new students on Drew history.

Drew Magazine’s Winter 2012 issue featured a conversation between Cunningham and Herman Rosenberg ’37, who were believed to be the college’s oldest living alumni. The two recounted their undergraduate days in the midst of the Great Depression, during which they supported themselves by raking leaves for $0.35 an hour. They also reminisced about the close relationships that they shared with their favorite professors, which is a Drew tradition that continues to endure.

“I eventually majored in psych because of Jim McClintock,” Cunningham said. “He took no nonsense. If you were in [his] class, you were expected to produce.”

Drew’s Chief Communications Officer, David Muha, noted the extraordinary longitude of Cunningham’s relationship with Drew.

“Most people know Doc Young and McClintock as places,” he said. “John knew them as people.”–Michael Bressman

For more on John Cunningham: Columnist Mark Di Ionno pays tribute to his friend and mentor. (Star-Ledger, Friday, June 8, 2012)