Today I got a very strong reminder of the fact that my Father was one of the world’s great salesmen!
It was when deciding whether to write a Father’s Day themed Street Seens this June 18, that he began to exert a none-too-subtle bit of pressure. Now mind you, the man in question departed this life many decades ago. But that seems only to have put him in league with a whole galaxy of influencers beginning from the dawn of time. (Consider, for example, Abraham bargaining with God to get Him to hold off on destroying Sodom for the sake of a number of just people. The Patriarch started at 50 and worked down to a mere 10 by the time God conceded. I can just hear my Father saying, “You know, deary-darling, that Abraham was quite a man.”) So, I stopped quibbling, and got a green light to celebrate Father’s Day with a few memories of William C. Cunningham, Sr., Father and Showman.
William C. Cunningham, Sr.
As a believer that there are no coincidences in life, it may well be that the reason for this intervention from afar is that it marks his wedding anniversary to his beloved Sara Doherty whom he lured back to the United States a few years after she had returned to County Tyrone, Northern Ireland upon the death of Father Patrick McGee. pastor of Saint Joseph’s Parish in Illinois where she had lived for some years. Not, mind you, that my father was given to dramatic gestures.
Let me continue with stories of the man this Street Seens honors. They include some memories first written down for his grandchildren and conclude with words he used as the closing of many “stump speeches” he delivered as he traveled the dozens of places he visited to raise awareness and contributions to build a Cathedral for the newly minted Diocese of Joliet in Illinois.
In a Christmas letter of mine to his grandchildren and great grandchildren, I reminded the group of their heritage. That group then included two members of Second City’s Main Stage; a choir soloist turned musical comedy performer (later to become TV anchorman); a ballerina with “hauteur” beyond her years; and two other members of the corps de ballet for a Cleveland troupe performing the Nutcracker. “Your generation comes by its ‘performer genes’ honestly. There was a great showman lost – or perhaps not – in Bill/Willie Cunningham of Wilton Center, Manhattan and Joliet, Illinois. Your Nana was fond of telling about one of her first sightings of her future husband at an amateur variety show in Hoermann’s Hotel in Manhattan where Daddy regaled the crowd with his rendition of ‘Those Wild, Wild Women Are Making a Wild Man of Me.’ Naturally, the elegant Sara Doherty was not a stage door Janie. She was, we presume, reserved in her applause, knowing that he was currently being pursued by the dreaded (name omitted to protect the departed).
Daddy’s “party pieces” were “School Days,” “My Wild Irish (which I seem to hear in memory’s ear as being pronounced ‘Arish’) Rose” and “There’s a Long, Long Trail-a-Winding. Daddy’s voice was rich and hearty.
He was nothing if not dramatic. His sales targets were drawn in, inch by inch, with a consummate performer’s skills. And when the moment came that he grasped the elbow of the potential buyer and said, “I want you to have this car, Charlie, but that’s as near as I can come to giving it to you,” the person might just as well have written the check and stopped trying to resist.
History Wall at Cathedral of St. Raymond of Nonnatus in Joliet, Illinois
Speaking of Charlie, one of the family’s great running gags had to do with Charlie Quinn and Daddy’s shameless sense of drama. Having severed his connections with Lincoln/Mercury to focus entirely on Ford products, Daddy pursued a “scorched earth” policy in regard to the former brands. He was merciless in identifying their defects, and lest we miss the point, he drew illustrations from life to paint the picture more clearly. One evening at the dinner table he said, to emphasize just how bad that year’s Lincolns really were, “I met Charlie Quinn today and he had tears in his eyes telling me the troubles he’s having with that car.”
Now it’s important to note that when you are at table with people as bright as my siblings, Bill, Peggy and Mary, you take a big risk in saying something that broad.
“TEARS? HE HAD TEARS IN HIS EYES?” gasped Bill between belly laughs.
“Of course,” said Peggy, “I saw him just afterward. He was leaning up against the stop light at Cass and Scott, sobbing quietly.”
“You mean that was Mr. Quinn? By the time I saw him, near Saint Mary’s,” Mary interjected, warming to the escalating leg pulling, “I didn’t even recognize him. The poor man was hysterical…not to be consoled!”
Now, only a master actor or a master poker player can come through all that and not break up. Daddy did just that. “You can laugh if you want,” he said with a sad look belied by the twinkle in his eye, “but it’s a pretty sorry sight when you see a grown man that upset.”
I did not then, nor do I now know who Charlie Quinn was, but I know that he is part of the oral history of the Cunningham family. And I’m pretty sure his next car, bought very soon and from our father, was a Ford.
But the performer was just one side. The caring and highly compassionate man was another.
“I’m so sorry for your trouble”
I only later understood that the words I heard Daddy say at wakes were as absolutely right as they were heartfelt. He never said more than, “I’m so sorry for your trouble.” And when I came to realize that words can cover meaning as well as convey it, I came to understand that there are no better words that one can say to someone in grief.
The bag of medals
One of the curiosities of my young life was a bag of medals that my Father carried in his pocket. It was a small, leather pouch with a zipper and in it he kept a collection of medals and a tiny statue of Saint Christopher standing on a base that formed the bottom of a metal capsule. When you lifted off the cover, the miniature Saint Christopher was revealed. I suspect he felt that Saint Christopher had been looking after him one weekend as he sped across the roads from Illinois to Benton Harbor, Michigan to join the “family in exile.” (I was long past the age of reason by the time I discovered that summer was announced by the arrival of June 21. I thought it was signaled by the arrival of the suitcases, down from the attic, to be packed for a summer trip to Michigan or Wisconsin…someplace where the heat was relieved, at least by night. Mother’s Irish genes had not prepared her for a summer on a limestone bluff which absorbed the heat by day and radiated it by night.) His Lincoln Zephyr left the road, rolled over three times and landed upright with his hands still gripping the wheel. He simply drove up out of the ditch and proceeded…probably at the same speed. He was, you see, a firm believer in the power of Saint Christopher.
The bag of medals grew and periodically it even had to be weeded out lest the zipper be taxed beyond its limits. Each of those medals had its own story and brought its own blessing. I remember many times when we sat together and he told me the stories of each one. And in the surprising simplicity of this complex man’s faith, each surely represented a pact between him and the champion in Heaven portrayed on the medal. Our Lady was his special favorite. Each morning after the 6 or 6:30 A.M. Mass he would light a candle, kneel at her altar, and pray the Memorare. I think of that often lately and about how remarkable it was for an essentially motherless child (his Mother died when he was just a bit more than two) to have such a bond of trust with the Mother of God. And I think of how she must have cherished and ultimately protected this man for whom she was the only Mother he ever really knew.
Sometimes the “dramatic” monologues were amplified into duets. The subject, and the facts, of driving were a continuing theme of “play to the audience” dialogues between our parents. Mother had a habit (understandably unnerving to Daddy) of calling upon the Holy Family, jointly and severally, in all circumstances where she, as his passenger, perceived danger. If the “threatening” vehicle or obstacle was a city block away, she had time to pump the invisible brake pedal on the passenger side floor and invoke, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, protect us.” If the “peril” was as close as half a block, she only had time, for, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” And if it was several car lengths near, she only had time for “Jeeeee….” These prayers did not inspire piety in her mate. So, while she prayed, he swore. I found a letter the two had sent to my brother Bill on their return from a visit to him at the Jesuit Novitiate in Milford, Ohio. Appended to the one and a half pages of Daddy’s comments was a scant half page in which his travelling companion wrote, “Thanks, no doubt to your prayers for us, we returned home safely; despite the fact that your father drives like an adolescent.”
Daddy’s attitude towards car trips was – get in the car, put your foot to the floor and get there as fast as possible. Needless to say, this attitude was not shared by his spouse and fellow occupant of the front seat. She took his speeding as an eschewal of his responsibilities to his family and tended to describe him, at the wheel, as “Sport Cunningham.” When she lauded her own cautious driving by saying, “Look up the record!” (referring to the fact that she had never had an accident) Daddy would say, “But they don’t say how many accidents you caused.”
Driving with them was never dull. And it was not only God who was pleased as, in his later years, Daddy used the frequent trips between Joliet and Chicago to say the rosary and his other favorite devotional prayers. It might have been that with his innate sense of strategy he had found an unimpeachable way to silence Mother’s navigational “assistance.”
Sunday afternoon rides “in the country” were sometimes a family affair. As the postscript to the family, I was the last one to be available to participate in the ritual when the others had gone off to boarding school and college and the other pursuits that come with the teen years. So, many of the family-style Sunday rides I remember were simple threesomes. They were an excellent way of dealing with the warmth of pre-air conditioning summer heat. I remember the relief I felt holding my hand (or even sometimes my face) out the window to catch the breeze created by the car’s motion.
Sometimes we went to visit Mrs. McCullough (our surrogate grandmother….an Irish lady who looked—and behaved —- like the late Queen Mother Mary of England) in Chicago. I remember entertaining myself while the grownups visited by walking around the rug in her dining room…. sometimes stepping only on the roses…. then only on the leaves…. you get the picture.
As a very small child I remember visiting what I knew to be “the farm,” actually a property which, I believe had come to Daddy as an inheritance from his father. Of this “farm” I have very little memory, but the memory I do have provides me the setting of stories in books or on tape that have a farm setting. The fact that “the farm” passed out of our lives brings me to the really significant aspect of Sunday rides. Because the true magic of the Sunday rides occurred when they involved only Momma and Daddy. I often knew little of the problems that must have challenged them in those post-Depression days which became wartime, then postwar days.
Imagine a dealer in automobiles, trucks and the parts and services for them, making a living in times when the buying public was still reeling from memories of “Hoovervilles” and later, when the war effort precluded the manufacturing of consumer vehicles. For them, these things coincided with the period when they were making decisions about education for their three eldest children, all of whom would be attending boarding school, college or graduate school during those post-Depression, early postwar years. In any case, I did notice that decisions seemed to be reached during their Sunday rides. After one of them I remember hearing that “the farm” would be sold. So, however far apart were their feelings about the challenges of vehicular transportation, they were always as one in their commitment to their children and the sense of values that told them education would be an inheritance they would always find a way to afford, knowing it was a bequest to their children that nothing could diminish.
What better way to end this remembrance of a consummate Father and Showman than with his own words. His “sales pitch” for raising the funds to build a Cathedral he understood as a fitting centerpiece for their new Diocese, began with a strong reminder that this was, after all, a way to do honor to the one he honored as a Father. “Remember folks, God is never outdone in generosity. Amen. Alleluia! (And sign right here!)”
Opening photo by Bigstock; all others courtesy of Annette Cunningham