A life spent making a difference
“It must have been cold there in my shadow,
To never have sunlight on your face.
You were content to let me shine, that’s your way.
You always walked a step behind.”
Bette Midler’s song has been used in various situations as a badge of honor for those individuals who stand in the shadows and make a difference with their actions. Those individuals who shun the limelight and ask no quarter for their efforts; often go unrecognized for the differences they make.
Many people have been deemed worthy of such praise, but few are more deserving of this honor than our own Ruth Cunningham.
Cunningham, who has played a vital role in improving the lives of so many through the years, has brushed aside any attempts at honoring her efforts. Rather than bask in the glory of the things she has done to make this world a better place for all of mankind, Cunningham chooses to silently go about her efforts, ever vigilant to the needs of others.
“I have a funny perspective about life,” explained Cunningham, whose 40 year teaching career has no doubt touched the lives of countless students and help to shape the destinies of some of Alabama’s most prominent citizens. “I never felt like I could do a good enough job. I don’t feel worthy of praise, so I have always tried to stay in the background. I love helping others and trying to make a difference, but I don’t want to be the one out front receiving the credit.
“My grandmother always said you should never do things to praise yourself or impress others. I want to be the person who lifts others.”
Cunningham believes this desire to help others, while remaining a silent figure in the shadows, stems from her teaching career.
“One of my students is now the president of a major university,” explained Cunningham. “I am so proud of her, because I know I helped her. Still, I don’t want any credit for my role.”
“I was the one with all the glory.
While you were the one with all the strain.
Beautiful face without a name, for so long.
Beautiful smile to hide the pain.”
Born in Chambers County, Cunningham is the daughter of the late John Henry and Carrie Evans. Following her father’s death when she was just 13-months-old, Cunningham was moved in with her grandmother, two uncles and an aunt in a large home.
While Cunningham admits there was a tremendous amount of love and attention afforded her while she grew up, she also experienced a very intense pang of loneliness, being an only child. She suggests this may possibly be one of the reasons she now feels more comfortable standing alone in the shadows, watching others ride her efforts to success from afar.
“When I was younger,” said Cunningham, “I wished that there would be a big storm and that a little girl my age would get lost in the woods and come to our house. I hoped my mother would say she could stay and live with us and become my sister, because I was very lonely for company from someone my own age.”
The storm never came, and Cunningham soon developed a voracious appetite for reading, she would embark on great journeys into the unknown of future worlds.
After graduation from high school, Cunningham attended Tuskegee University, majoring in home economics. Split on the idea of attending graduate school, Cunningham came across an article in a magazine that quickly chartered her course for the future.
“The article talked about how Negroes could not learn as much as white people,” explained Cunningham. “It said that our brains were smaller and could not comprehend as much.
“I did not want to believe that. I was determined to prove that I was just as good as anyone else.”
From that moment on, Cunningham embarked on an educational journey that continues to this day.
“I have always wanted to keep learning more and more,” explained Cunningham. “I hate feeling illiterate about anything.”
Cunningham admits her heart was always set on attaining a law degree or entering the ministry, but obstacles along her journey have limited her options.
“To tell the truth,” explained Cunningham, “I hated teaching when I first got into it. I would get physically sick in the mornings because I had to go to work. I was ready to quit and take a job as a beautician.
“Then one of the young ladies in my class, who I thought had a lot of potential, dropped out of school. She told me she was pregnant and would not be able to come back. That incident touched me so much that I felt I had to stay and help those children. From that moment on, I was gung ho to go out and give them the best possible chance at making a good future for themselves.”
“Did you ever know that you’re my hero?
Your everything I would like to be.
I can fly higher than an eagle.
You are the wind beneath my wings.”
Cunningham’s desire to attend law school never completely went away. However, before she could act on that educational impulse, her husband, Wilmer Cunningham, was stricken with terminal cancer.
“He was told he only had about eight months to live,” explained Cunningham, “but he lasted 14 years. He was a fighter, and I was there for him every step of the way.”
Her dreams, what she believes was an actual calling to the ministry, came up short of being realized as well. Growing up in a strong Baptist family, the concept of women in the ministry was severely frowned upon.
She never discussed her feelings with anyone, believing it would serve only to embarrass her family, and later changed over to United Methodist.
While her ministerial dreams continued to haunt her, she pushed them aside and held steadfast to her course of helping the students who came in and out of her life.
“One thing that bothers me,” added Cunningham, “is that I am not able to give more to the community. I know I don’t have a lot to offer, but I believe we should offer whatever we have to help others.”
It is hard to know when you look at a picture the heart of the person that lurks inside. Often, the greatest among us are those we hear from the least. Those people who go about their lives making a difference in everything they do, but rarely, if ever, making it known what wonders they have done.
Ask Ruth Cunningham how much she has done for her fellow men and women, and you would be hard pressed to get any answer other than the two word statement, “not enough.” Ask the community as a whole to detail her saga of volunteerism, and few would be able to even scratch the surface of her generosity and love. But, stand back and take in the bigger picture, look closely at the world around you, and you will see the handiwork of Ruth Cunningham’s efforts; the miracles she works from the shadows.
“Thank you, thank you.
Thank God for you,
The wind beneath my wings.”
About Scott Earp Scott Earp is a staff writer for The Jacksonville News.