I’ve thought this past week of what I could say about my friend Bruce Cunningham that others hadn’t already, and the task was quite daunting.
As I thought on how to proceed, I came upon my presentation about Bruce when I had the honor two years ago to award him the prestigious Builder’s Cup on behalf of the Kiwanis Club of the Sandhills. As I looked over it, the words from that day seemed very much to capture the essence of the man I and so many others knew:
This Kiwanis Club first awarded the Builder’s Cup 90 years ago. It is the oldest such honor given in the Sandhills. The honor goes to the person who “by unselfish personal service, without hope of personal gain, has outstandingly contributed to the upbuilding of the Sandhills section.”
Over the years, this cup has gone to Leonard and Richard Tufts; Pappy and Ginny Moss; Norris Hodgkins Jr.; Voit Gilmore; Charles Picquet; Felton Capel; Clifton Blue; Joyce Franke; John Dempsey; David Bruton; Sam Ragan; Raymond Stone; Peggy Kirk Bell; and so on.
They endeavored for the collective good. Their efforts fought disease, fostered education and protected the natural environment. They stood up for inclusiveness. They fought for justice and upheld simple decency and human respect. They honored our history and opened our futures. They led by example and showed that we could be a small town but never small time. These are our collective heroes, our stewards — and now we add Bruce Cunningham to that list.
It’s easy for many of us to think of Bruce as one-
dimensional. Most of us know him as a school board member. Many of us know him as a pretty good defense attorney. Fewer still know of his bicycling or fiddle proclivities. We just know a specific tranche.
The fuller picture of his contribution must include the preservation of Pinehurst No. 2; founding the Tour de Moore and the Sunrise Preservation Group; leading the effort to build Blanchie Carter Discovery Park; the Moore Chamber Music Society; the People’s Law School at Sandhills Community College; the attorney, musician, carpenter; the cheeseburger diplomat and education advocate.
Bruce moved here right out of University of Virginia law school. Just a year into his career in the Sandhills, he was called upon, with fellow attorneys Jim Van Camp and John May, to fight an effort by Diamondhead Corp. that would have led to the overdevelopment of Pinehurst and condos all along course No. 2.
The three had no law or precedent on their side. And yet, in the end, they prevailed and struck a solution that preserved the cultural heritage of Pinehurst and its world-class course.
Bruce has been a faithful servant of the law over the years, seeking justice for those who had none, arguing mercy to those who didn’t deserve it, delivering respect to those who didn’t command it.
This moment is mostly lost to time now — almost 30 years gone by — but it was Bruce who, in January 1988, successfully negotiated the peaceful resolution of a hostage crisis at the offices of The Robesonian newspaper in Lumberton. Bruce’s client, Eddie Hatcher, and another man took 17 people hostage as a protest against the discrimination of native Americans.
Bruce spent 10 hours with the SBI as a hostage negotiator, eventually agreeing with Eddie to trade people for cheeseburgers.
Stewardship is an important concept for Bruce. The old ways and things have value and are worth preserving.
And so it was that, when the Arts Council of Moore County decided in 1998 it wanted to sell the old Sunrise Theater, he helped found, lead and raise money for the Sunrise Preservation Group, lest the old building become just another ghost of memory. He even had his own 80-year-old father inside painting baseboards.
But Bruce also has a soft spot for new things. In law school, he got turned on to cycling. Forty years ago he helped found, organize and lead the annual Tour de Moore bicycle race through Moore County. What started as a handful of riders in those early days eventually grew to hundreds of cyclists for the annual event. He served as its director for 34 of those years.
In 1980, Bruce helped found Southern Pines’ Springfest as an event for people to do around the bike race. Today, it is our local rite of spring.
He and his wife, Ann, could have sent their two young daughters to any elementary school, but they consciously chose public education, and Southern Pines Primary School. It was the simple motivation of a father’s desire for his kids to have somewhere decent to play which led to a new “signature” project for the town.
Working in concert with the school and principal Blanchie Carter, Bruce organized an effort to improve the playground, which at the time was little more than a patch of asphalt in a sea of sand and briars, brambles and scrub. The school called it “The Desert.”
The initial plan, Bruce says, “was to raise $40,000 for a piece of equipment, stick it into this desert and call it a playground.”
But then, this was the man who then said, “A playground with nothing but equipment is to play as a paint-by-numbers kit is to art.” And so he enlisted other parents, donors and the genius of N.C. State professor Robin Moore to design a play space of great acclaim.
It became the Blanchie Carter Discovery Park at Southern Pines Primary. First-graders built a blueberry maze. Third-graders helped build a log cabin with period tools. A “purple monster” apparatus of unlimited imagination was built. The park took into account the physical abilities and accessibility of every child. Ultimately, the group raised $200,000 and secured a substantial write-up in The New York Times for their creativity. The paper praised it as “A grand success ... a collaboration of children, parents, teachers and community members.”
Then, in 2003, he sensed something not adding up in the schools. The lawyer did some poking around and eventually found that some good students were getting paid to take the SAT in order to boost Moore County’s academic standing and reputation. And the money was coming from a state fund intended for struggling students. Moore had to repay $104,000.
There was a lot more to it, but by the end of 2004, the school superintendent was gone and Bruce Cunningham was sitting on the Moore County Board of Education. In November 2016, he won a fourth four-year term in a landslide.
As a school board member, Bruce has been a diligent, persistent advocate for public education. He is a true believer, not because of what it’s done for him, but because he knows the fundamental role it plays in our society.
Over the years, he has successfully helped steer Moore County Schools through a number of policy, budget and management challenges, the greatest of which were those eight days in June 2015. There are few people who can fully appreciate the crucible-like pressure of that time, who know the level of negotiating, the skillful navigation, the processing through of moves and counter-moves and respect for the law that it took to steer through a situation for which there was no precedent in the state.
I have seen lesser challenges stymie public order, trust and progress for years. And yet in the end, we came out stronger. It was the foundation laid down by Bruce in June 2015 that cultivated trust, transparency, faith.
I struggled for a while with how I would lay out this amazing body of a life’s work and how I could possibly do justice to it.
But as he is wont to do, Bruce gave me an out. He is fond of quoting Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
We have been blessed over time, here, to have thoughtful, committed citizens dedicated to the upbuilding of the Sandhills. Bruce Cunningham follows in the tradition of leaders who quietly led lives not of desperation but of desire for a better tomorrow.