We lost a good one the other day. No, let me correct myself. We lost a great one. By “we,” I mean the human race. You see, Henry Cunningham passed away last week. If you were living in Trigg County in the 1970s, then you should remember Henry. Whether you lived here or not, knew him or not, it is only fitting that I pay tribute to a wonderful man and friend named Henry Cunningham.
Travel back in time with me to the early 1970s. I was a middle school student at Trigg County. Back then, they called it Trigg County Junior High. While I played Junior High basketball for Trigg, I also had a keen eye on the high school program which I hoped to be a part of in a couple of years. One player that I took great notice of was a guy by the name of Henry Cunningham. I was much intrigued much by that guy named Henry Cunningham. Here’s why. Henry seemed to me to be one of the most unique basketball players that I had ever seen. The reason was simple. Henry was much more than a basketball player. He also ran cross country, played trumpet in the band and was a great student. By the way, Henry was also an African American. Consider that the Trigg County School System had only been integrated for around nine years when Henry entered high school. This meant that Henry was also in the business of breaking barriers in many ways.
Now for the Henry I knew. Those Junior High years passed quickly for me and I was soon in high school. At the beginning of my freshman year, I started running cross country. Two teammates quickly took me under their wing. They were Henry Cunningham and Jimmy Gentry. Our cross country team practiced that year at 6:30 a.m. every school day. Henry and Jimmy taught me the ropes and made me feel like I belonged from the very beginning. As fall turned to winter, I became Henry’s teammate on the basketball court. From my seat on the varsity bench as a freshman, I got to watch Henry lead Trigg to a district championship and almost beat Christian County in the regional championship game. Henry was one of the fiercest competitors I had ever seen, but he did it with a class that was unmatched then and seldom seen today.
At some point late in the season, Henry and Jimmy Gentry asked me to go scout one of the teams that they thought we might play in the region tournament. One of them also brought along an extra T-Jacket they had for me to wear. Man, I felt 10 feet tall to be traveling with those seniors and wearing the extra letter jacket.
Despite all his athletic accomplishments, it was what Henry did in the classroom that set him apart. Henry was valedictorian of his senior class and received a scholarship to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville and major in pre-med. It was during his college years that we became really close. Henry would come home in the summertime and work at the campground at Lake Barkley. During those summers, we played many a one-on-one basketball game, became intense tennis rivals and we even weight trained together. Henry and I would get a key from whoever lived in the old house where the football field house now stands. We would then open the football dressing room and work out on the only set of weights the school had, which meant a universal weight machine. Henry’s leadership made me one of the first Trigg County basketball players ever to train on the weights. I also tried, without any success, to teach Henry to swim one of those summers. It was fruitless. To be such a good athlete, he couldn’t swim because he just wouldn’t take his feet off the bottom. I also talked Henry into playing on a summer softball team that I had rounded up. Despite all those sporting activities, it was talking about life and our futures that I valued the most. Henry definitely had a vision for where he wanted to go in life.
After my high school graduation and one year at Western Kentucky, I transferred to Belmont University in Nashville to try and play college basketball. Since Henry was at Vanderbilt in med school by this time, we were able to once again to renew our friendship.
Henry went on to be the president of his medical class at Vanderbilt. From there, he became a reknowed specialist in pulmonary medicine in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Henry was a very esteemed medical doctor. Don’t just take my word for it. Google “Doctor Henry Cunningham obiturary Fort Worth Texas” and you will be impressed. The obit even includes how Henry was one of the first women’s basketball coaches at Vanderbilt while he was in school there. I had almost forgotten that.
I would like to share with you what some other Trigg County folks had to say about Henry. Former Coach Jim Wallace: “Henry was one of the best combination student/athletes in school history. He and James Hopson were captains on our 1975 team that was one of the best in school history. Henry’s quiet leadership was a big factor in that team’s success.”
Former Coach Buddy Sivills: “Leadership was one of Henry’s greatest qualities. He was a classy young man, intelligent. He was the type of player you enjoyed coaching.”
Former classmate and band member Shelia Littlejohn Thomas: “Henry was driven to succeed. He was a leader who was nice to everyone. I never heard him say an unkind word to anyone. He also had a great sense of humor. Henry was just the kind of person who made everyone around him better.”
Henry passed on after a prolonged battle with cancer. He is survived by his wife and two sons. Henry is also survived by his legacy that will endure forever in the hearts and minds of those that knew him.
Enthusiasm Makes the Difference
Mike Wright is the former head coach of boys basketball and cross country at Trigg County High School. Emails concerning Coach’s Corner can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.