As we put away another year and look forward to a new one, it is only fitting that we remember one of the many great Carroll Countians that have gone before us: John H. Cunningham.
On Dec. 31, 1965, John Cunningham passed away within a few hours of his 99th birthday. Local historian Jay Graybeal wrote of “his rich life, including his interests in bicycling, walking and poker,” in a March 16, 1997 column in the Carroll County Times.
Graybeal shared Cunningham’s obituary, which appeared on Jan. 1, 1966. The obituary began: "John H. Cunningham, believed to have been the oldest banker in the United States, died yesterday at his home. … He was a past master of the Masonic order and was a member of the Westminster Church of Christ.”
Cunningham was born on New Year’s Day in 1867. According to his obit, “On January 1, 1885, while a senior at Western Maryland College, Mr. Cunningham began his banking career as a clerk with the Farmers and Mechanics National Bank, [at 105 E. Main St. in Westminster] following the footsteps of his father William, who was a clerk there.”
He worked in the same office, with the same employer for his entire life — from 1885 until when he passed away in 1965. “Many days he walked the mile to work from his home at 95 West Green Street.”
Graybeal reported: “His long career in banking was recognized by a telegram from President Kennedy in 1963.”
The telegram said, “Congratulations on being named …’America's Oldest Banker in Years of Continuous Service.’ Your 77 years record as a banker is certainly an impressive one …”
He was well-known for his punctuality and folklore attests that “fellow employees reportedly set their watches by him,” as he would arrive at his desk “every working day promptly at 9 a.m. and would not leave until 3 in the afternoon…” It was also noted “that Mr. Cunningham had not missed a town meeting in Westminster since 1883, the year he became old enough to vote.
Cunningham played poker every Tuesday night between 7 and 11 p.m. sharp, at “Thelma Hoffman's restaurant at 216 E. Main Street [later known as Cockey’s Tavern] in Westminster.” Among his partners were Ben Thomas, Paul Whitmore, Miller Richardson, Ralph Bonsack, Frank Leidy, Theodore Brown, and Norman Boyle.”
Cunningham was also well known for his New Year’s Day tradition of an all-day poker game, “that began promptly at 11 a.m., broke for dinner at 5 p.m., then resumed until 11 p.m.”
At the time of his death, Cunningham “was believed to be Western Maryland College's oldest living [alumnus] … and the State's only living charter member of the Maryland State Fireman's Association.”
The Jan. 1, 1966 obituary reported that: “Cunningham's interest in politics was rewarded during the Coolidge Administration with his appointment in 1923 as Surveyor of Customs at Baltimore, a post he held for nine years. In 1911, Mr. Cunningham ran unsuccessfully for State Comptroller.”
“Beside politics and poker, Mr. Cunningham loved walking. On weekends as late as 1964, he hiked along country roads, a white handkerchief tied to his cane, for safety.”
When he was 97 years old, he explained in a November 1964 interview: "I only walk half as far and about half as fast as I used to. … It's a strain to walk more than 4 or 5 miles…"
“In his earlier days … [he] was a bicyclist of renown. … According to a banker's association bulletin, in 1898 he bicycled 200 miles from Westminster to Atlantic City, N.J…” He waited to give up driving until he was approximately 92 years old.
In full disclosure, I met Cunningham at least once or twice in the early 1960s upon the occasion of one of his visits to City Hall to talk with Westminster Mayor Joseph L. Mathias who served on the Westminster Common Council from May 1927 to May 1937 and was mayor from May 18, 1942 to December 3, 1963. To the best of my knowledge, I have only written about Cunningham a couple of times. Most notably, a portion of this column was previously published in 2006.
Carroll County is fortunate to have many great community leaders still with us. We should all take time to pause and thank them for their service to our community — whether we agree with them or disagree. Every one of them is working hard to meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.
In 2019 may we all work hard to rekindle a renewed sense of civility and have as full and vigorous a life as Mr. John Cunningham — playing poker and walking 5 miles a day. Bicycling 200 miles at a time is optional.
God Bless and Happy New Year.