Bruce Cunningham was not a man to ask why, but “why not?”

Why not have a first-rate community theater in downtown Southern Pines? Why not take a scrubby sand-spurred lot and turn it into a nationally acclaimed play space? Why not start an annual bicycle race to showcase the best of his community?

Why not extend the protections of the Constitution and the law to those most vulnerable to their misapplications? Why not learn to play the fiddle well into adulthood?

Why not sacrifice just a bit to give children the best public education possible? Why not spend his 60s giving up weekends to travel across state and country with a bunch of high school speech and debate students? Why not, at the age of 71, learn to build a wrought iron fence from scratch for his home?

He never — ever — would have declared his efforts unique or the work of a more superior talent. He sought neither the world’s recognition nor the applause of men. “One person in a large number of volunteers” — that’s as far as he would go.

‘A Great Cavern’

And so it is that we find ourselves, on this grievous day, suddenly without Bruce a part of our community anymore.

“His loss leaves a great cavern in our community and in our hearts,” said Schools Superintendent Bob Grimesey last week after hearing of Bruce’s death while on a family vacation in Ireland. “We are devastated, but we will honor him with our enduring devotion to all that he held dear.”

And trust us when we say he held dear a great deal. If you enjoy the Sunrise Theater, you can thank Bruce for its restoration. If you appreciate the natural beauty of Pinehurst No. 2 and the fact that it is not lined with golf condos, you can thank Bruce in part for that.

If you love seeing the cyclists whirling through Moore County in September, you can thank Bruce for founding the Tour de Moore. If you benefited from the beauty of Blanchie Carter Discovery Park or the joyful strings of the Moore Chamber Music Society, you can appreciate Bruce’s work.

If you’ve participated or benefited in some way from the People’s Law School at Sandhills Community College — or had Bruce stand up for you in court over a 40-year career — you know of his sharp legal mind.

Work to Carry On

Bruce never sought recognition for any of it. He accepted such with some sheepishness. Bruce instead was fond of citing the anthropologist 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.”

Bruce lived that as his credo every day, even when the small group was just him. And more often than not it was. More than 30 years ago, 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 Hatcher to trade people for cheeseburgers. When all was said and done, then-Gov. Jim Martin wrote Bruce a letter, praising his “calm heroism.”

No one asked Bruce why he did that. But if they had, he surely would have said, “Why not?”

Bruce Cunningham embodied a spirit that makes this place so special, our Eden in the Pines. We remain to carry on Bruce’s passions — art-house movies, cycling tours, school building, preservation, art, music, jurisprudence — as a small group of thoughtful citizens committed to changing our world.

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