During his 35-year career at Elmhurst College as dean of students and a professor of education, James Cunningham devoted himself to enriching the academic and cultural life of Elmhurst students.
But his greatest legacy at Elmhurst may be one that has benefited not only Elmhurst College students, but students from all over the world and everyone who loves jazz.
Dr. Cunningham, dean of students emeritus and longtime producer and emcee of the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival, died in his Elmhurst home on April 6. He was 74.
James Cunningham joined Elmhurst College in 1968 as associate dean of students and director of the College Union, now the Frick Center. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and history at West Virginia University, and his Ph.D. from Loyola University in Chicago.
He became dean of students in 1973, and for the next two decades expanded and enhanced student-related services and activities such as the Union Board, athletic facilities and Greek life offerings.
He also chartered the College’s chapter of Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership and scholarship honor society, and established such ODK traditions as the surprise “tapping” of new members. Dr. Cunningham would don cap and gown on those occasions, interrupting classes to bestow the honor on unsuspecting students.
“I can remember him walking across campus one windy day, with his robes flying and his hair flying, really getting into it,” recalled LuEllen Doty, an education professor who worked with Dr. Cunningham. In 1998, he received the Meritorious Service Award from ODK.
Dr. Cunningham also was a strong supporter of the College’s athletics program, and helped to oversee the renovation of the school’s former gym and the construction of the Physical Education Center, now R.A. Faganel Hall. In 1978 he and Al Brinkmeier ’76, along with music faculty member Doug Beach, wrote the school fight song, Elmhurst to Victory. Dr. Cunningham was inducted into the College’s Bluejay Backer Hall of Fame in 2003 for his role in shaping Elmhurst College athletics off the field.
“He genuinely liked people, and he liked students and getting to know them,” said Frank Mittermeyer, director of the Patterson Center for the Health Professions and a longtime friend of Dr. Cunningham’s. “He also really helped a lot of students develop into adults, and was a great mentor to his staff.”
In 2004, he was named dean of students emeritus. “He was the one who taught me that, above all, we are here for the students,” said Cheryl Leoni, who worked closely with Dr. Cunningham in the student affairs office and now is associate director of the Patterson Center for the Health Professions. “I try to remember that with every job I’ve taken at the College.”
From 1993 until his retirement in 2003, Professor Cunningham taught in the Department of Education, and was the department’s director of secondary education. He established the department’s first study-abroad course, taking students to London to work in the schools there.
“He was passionate about the profession of teaching, and honoring teaching,” Doty said.
It was while he was dean of students that Dr. Cunningham had the opportunity to make the most of another of his passions: jazz.
The College’s first jazz festival began in 1968 as part of the American College Jazz Festival, a series of competitions held around the country. When the American College Jazz Festival ceased operations in 1973,
Dr. Cunningham fought to carry on the festival, but as an event that emphasized education over competition.
“The old festival had been not so much about the schools as about the commercial interests,” Dr. Cunningham recalled in a 2003 interview for the Elmhurst College magazine Prospect. “To take a bunch of groups playing in all different styles and say one was the best—period—just didn't make sense. It wasn't educationally sound. We wanted the kids to learn from one another and from the pros, so that this native art form didn't go the way of the dodo.”
Dr. Cunningham produced the festival for 20 years, nurturing what has become one of the country’s oldest and best collegiate jazz festivals, and one that draws the industry’s top professional performers and the leading college bands from across the nation and around the world.
After retiring from the College in 2003, he remained involved with the Jazz Festival, serving as the primary emcee, a consultant and the Festival’s most ardent supporter.
He attended this year’s Jazz Festival, where trumpeter Byron Stripling paid tribute to him on the festival’s last day.
“Without Jim’s presence and support, the Jazz Studies Program, the Elmhurst College Jazz Band and much of the music department as we know it today would likely never have attained much of the success that we have all been so fortunate to be a part of,” said Festival director Doug Beach, who also is director of the Jazz Studies Program and the Jazz Band. “The Jazz Festival, which just celebrated its 46th year, would be a mere footnote in the College’s history were it not for Jim’s foresight and guidance in its early years.
“He had great vision and wisdom, and he loved the arts and was there to support them,” Beach added. “The Festival is his lasting legacy. He also was a trusted advisor, a critic whose words always warranted a listen, and the closest of friends. He is not replaceable.”
Dr. Cunningham is survived by his wife, Deborah; his son, Mark; his daughter, Amy; and one grandchild.
A Celebration of Life service in his honor will be held at Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, 190 Prospect Ave., Elmhurst, beginning at 3:00 p.m. on Monday, April 29.
In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts to the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival at Elmhurst College would be appreciated. To make your gift, please visit this secure website (select “Other” for type of donation and specify “Jim Cunningham Memorial”) or call the Office of Development and Alumni Relations at (630) 617-6424. Gifts also may be mailed to Elmhurst College, Attn: Office of Development, 190 S. Prospect Ave., Elmhurst, IL 60126. Checks should be made payable to Elmhurst College, and the memo line should reference the Jim Cunningham Memorial.