By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. — Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to say, when looking back on a long life, that it’s been a lot of fun, thanks to the Holy Spirit? Bob Cunningham, 89, says he has had so much fun in life, because “the Holy Spirit runs the whole show!”
His several ministries give back to the Holy Spirit: he repairs broken rosaries, assembles new rosaries from pieces of broken ones, and he makes crucifixes from sticks and tiny rocks. Priests, religious sisters, and friends in 14 parishes in Kansas and Missouri have received the gift of a one of a kind crucifix.
Bob is a member of the Serra Club, a member of Cure of Ars Parish in Leawood, formerly a member of St. Elizabeth Parish in Kansas City, Mo., a life-long Catholic, and a proud Marine.
He attended St. Peter’s Grade school and Rockhurst High School, and in 1943 volunteered to serve in the Armed Forces. At the time, volunteers could choose the service they wanted. He got lucky, recalling that “right after I passed my physical at Fort Leavenworth, it was time for the Service Staffs to make their daily selections. They asked for volunteers “A through E” to fill the day’s quota for the Marine Corps. Luckily, my last name started with a C.”
He was to serve three years with Love Company, Third Battalion, Sixth Regiment, Second Marine Division, United States Marine Corps. He fought in the Battle of Saipan, and later met up with fellow Kansas Citian Father (later Monsignor) Arthur Tighe, a friend of Bob’s parents who pulled some strings and took Bob for his first airplane ride.
Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, names of famous battles fought just months before the dropping of the Atomic bombs caused the Japanese surrender and ended the war in the Pacific are more than just battle names to Bob. He was there.
His war memories are redolent of smells, sights and fears. Smells of firearms, explosions, and death. Sights of destruction, sinking ships and landing craft; sights of beauty, mountains and waterfalls, sights of death. Fear that never quite dissipated. As Bob said, “Your life is simply on the line.”
If it hadn’t been for the chaplains, troop morale might have tanked. “Every time there was a spiritual service of any faith, the troops flocked in to worship. Believe me, prayers were on our lips a great deal of the time,” he remembered.
There were also memories of fruitcakes sent by his parents, and how good they tasted with (warm) beer; the first fresh meat they had tasted in a long while —mutton from Australia; the whole ship’s supply had to be unloaded at once, and with no refrigeration, had to be eaten or disposed of. They ate it, three times a day for a week. Bob recalled “guys in the chow line yelling, ‘Baa, Baa, Baa.’”
Tinian Island in the Marianas had been captured and awarded to Japan in 1914. In 1944, the Japanese realized its strategic importance as a possible American Boeing B-29 bomber base. The island was seized, however, by the Allies during the Battle of Tinian from July 24-Aug. 1, 1944; Bob’s company was involved in securing it. One morning as he was getting dressed, he felt a sting on his thigh. Scorpions being numerous in the area, Bob knew he’d been stung by one. “I grabbed my thigh to crush the scorpion. I could feel him being crushed as I beat on him.” Taking the pants off slowly, he stepped on the “scorpion,” and then discovered it was his rosary.
Was the broken rosary a maneuver of the Holy Spirit, a harbinger of things to come?
His company was part of a Marine Corps landing at Nagasaki City about a month after the dropping of the Atomic bomb. He recalled the strange sights of total destruction on one side of a street and wholeness on the other, the Japanese who looked at the Marines in the same way the Marines looked at them. “How weird we were to one another.”
He recalled the wonderful shipboard turkey dinner the returning Marines enjoyed for Christmas that year. “The next day was also Dec. 25, because we crossed the International Dateline during the night.” No repeat of the turkey dinner, however.
He arrived back in Kansas City early in 1946.
His three years in the Marines helped shape Bob Cunningham. He knew how to work hard. He enrolled at Rockhurst College, but after three years chose a different path. He had worked in heavy construction during the summers while in college, then began working full time at it. As time went on, he realized that the work left him little time for family and friends.
He joined the staff at the family business, Cunningham Oldsmobile, founded by his grandfather John Cunningham, and partner Hal Brace, in 1914. Bob eventually bought out other family members to own the dealership, then at 27th and Main.
As his business acumen, and dealership grew, so did his family. In 1952, Bob married Rosemary Lenaghan, and the couple had six children —“Three boys and three girls,” Bob proudly said. The family attended Mass at St. Elizabeth’s Church and the kids attended the parish school. The youngest, Lucy, was born with Down syndrome, but she didn’t allow her challenges to hold her back. “Lucy is the glue that holds our family together,” Bob said.
In 1978, Bob said, Hallmark obtained eminent domain rights over the land at 27th and Main in order to build Crown Center. Bob was forced to move Cunningham Olds to what is now a car dealership haven, 103rd between Wornall and State Line roads..
The company prospered, the children grew to adulthood and Bob and Rosemary’s family grew also, to include in-laws and, over the next years, 9 grandchildren.
More than a decade ago, Bob joined the Serra Club, to pray for vocations. He remembered “what a treat it was” when a priest would come up on the front lines during WWII and say Mass for the troops, and he hoped for more priests as time passed. At about the same time, perhaps due to the memory of the “scorpion’s sting,” Bob started repairing rosaries. Word spread through parishes on both sides of the state line, and it wasn’t long before he was repairing rosaries for 14 parishes, mostly in Johnson County, Kan., where he and Rosemary now lived. He also began collecting rosaries to send to missions in Africa and South America. Pieces of broken rosaries he stored for future repairs and for new rosaries.
One day about 10 years ago, as he was examining rosaries sent to him for the missions, he came across a small figure of the crucified Christ that wasn’t attached to a cross. Putting it aside for the moment, Bob pondered what to do with the corpus. Later, while taking a walk, he picked up a stick to throw, and then looked at it more closely. Jesus’ cross was made from a tree, so why not make a cross out of sticks for the homeless corpus?
“”The Holy Spirit told me to make the cross,” he said. “He really got me going. It’s been so much fun!”
He found a shorter stick to serve as the cross piece, and took them back to his apartment. Sitting at the kitchen table, Bob measured the length of the longer stick and the length of the corpus, and notched the long stick about ¾ of the length. He glued the cross piece into the notch, and with walnut-tinted wood putty, filled in the notch. After the cross had dried, Bob held the corpus to the cross to see where the hands and feet would best fit, then glued the corpus to the cross. The plaque imprinted INRI (King of the Jews) he made out of a Popsicle stick. The result? It’s much more realistic than a plastic, metal or particle board cross.
That first crucifix hangs in the main hallway of the apartment. Since then he has made more, many more. Seminarians, priests, religious sisters and parishioners of various parishes, including St. Elizabeth, St. Thomas More and Visitation, have all received Bob’s natural crucifixes. His crucifixes and rosaries will decorate tables at a future SOS (Support our Seminarians) Banquet; religious sisters who participate in the Serra Club’s annual Blisters for Sisters walk receive crucifixes, as do family and friends.
A collection of sticks is stored near the kitchen table, as are his tools. The corpuses with tiny plaques imprinted with INRI and stands are purchased at I. Donnelly and Company.
Rosemary passed away in 2010. About 10 months later, he met Shirl, a widow living in the same senior living community as Bob. He credits the Holy Spirit for their introduction. They have been happily married for several years. Shirl helps him with the crucifixes, painting realistic touches to the corpus. Tiny rocks and pebbles are pressed into putty filling the stand to support the crucifix, and give the impression of Calvary’s rocky surface. The completed crucifix stands about 7 ½ or 8 inches high.
Bob was to have knee replacement surgery the first week of March — “I had my other knee done about a year ago, and this one is jealous. The other one doesn’t hurt!” — and during his recovery he may have to put the making of natural crucifixes and rosary repairs on hold. But most likely, as soon as he is able, Bob will be at it again, doing what the Holy Spirit calls him to do, and enjoying the work hugely!