When Richard Cunningham was president of the Akron Bar Association in the mid-1970s, he coined the term “Akron lawyer.”
In a bar publication, he described this attorney as “a proud and dedicated professional in law, amenable to changes in legal and office procedures, but unbending to change in integrity and honesty.”
Friends and family say this phrase — which Cunningham often used — also described the man himself.
“He believed in practicing law the right way, including in an ethical way and a professional way,” said attorney Alan Segedy, who was mentored by Cunningham early in his career.
Cunningham, 89, died Aug. 14 after a long illness. His funeral is Thursday morning.
Cunningham is remembered for his lengthy legal career and for his service to the community, including as chairman for the Kent State University Board of Trustees.
He was born in Akron in 1930 and grew up in Cuyahoga Falls. He attended Western Reserve University for a year, then transferred to Columbia University on an NROTC scholarship. He attended law school at the University of Illinois where he graduated in 1953 and was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Navy.
After serving three years in the Navy as a legal officer, Cunningham joined the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, working in the worker’s compensation section and doing trial and appellate work.
Cunningham returned to Akron in 1957, where he worked with his late father, Ernest, and the late Bernard Amer and Charles Schnur. Amer, Cunningham and David Brennan started Amer Cunningham & Brennan in 1971.
Cunningham specialized in trial and appellate work, particularly in the areas of personal injury, business and real estate law.
Segedy, who was a law clerk and then attorney at Amer Cunningham & Brennan, said he learned a lot from Cunningham.
“He was a great guy and a wonderful lawyer,” said Segedy, who has practiced law for 47 years. “I’m a better attorney because of him.”
Cunningham outlived both of the founding partners of the firm, which is now known as Amer Cunningham Co. He left the firm and joined Brouse McDowell in 2001 in an of-counsel position, which means he wasn’t an economic partner.
At Brouse, Cunningham joined attorney Jerry Whitmer, his friend since 1960. He and Whitmer had tried many cases together, often on opposing sides.
“He was always the ultimate gentleman, regardless if he was on the other side of you,” Whitmer said.
Cunningham worked on several books that he hoped would aid young lawyers, finishing one before his death called “Order in Your Court; Happiness in Your Life.”
Cunningham was very involved in the community. He was a past member and chairman of both the KSU board of trustees and the KSU Foundation board. He also served on the Cuyahoga Falls school board.
In 1989, Cunningham gave the commencement address at Kent State, a speech that was later included in a book called “Onward!: 25 Years of Advice, Exhortation and Inspiration from America’s Best Commencement Speeches.”
June Cunningham, Dick’s wife of 17 years, said Cunningham told the students they would be challenged at some point by a boss, friend or client who wanted them to do something they knew was wrong. He said if they did that, they might maintain this relationship but lose something they couldn’t get back. He urged them to use their guts as a moral compass.
“That was what Dick lived by,” June Cunningham said.
June was Cunningham’s second wife. His first wife, Mary Lou, with whom he had eight children, died in 1999. He also has a stepson, 16 grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
June, who was also a widow, said she and Cunningham often talked about their deceased spouses. She said nothing was as important in his life as his family.
June said she held Cunningham as he died and told him, “Help me be as good as you are.”
“It was easy to know how to live, walking alongside of him,” she said, getting teary.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.