Robert L. (Bob) Cunningham

Copyright (2002) * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference

Robert L. (Bob) Cunningham

(1893-1979)

Photographic Archive, Knoxville News-Sentinel

Robert Larrymore (Bob) Cunningham was born on February 25, 1893 in Cottontown near Gallatin, Sumner County, Tennessee. He was one of the three children of Thomas Garrett Cunningham (b. 1846), a farmer, and Margaret (Franklin) Cunningham.

Thomas was the second of nine children of Robert (1814-1894) and Mary W. (Garrett) (1825-1875) Cunningham. Robert was born in Virginia. His family may have taken the typical migration route across Kentucky by the Wilderness Road, through Cumberland Gap, stopping for provisions at Adair’s Fort in Grassy Valley (present day Fountain City) and then traveling by way of the Cumberland Road (now Emory Road) to Middle Tennessee. Mary, the daughter of Timothy and Frances Garrett, seems to have been born in Tennessee (1).

Bob Cunningham attended elementary school in Sumner County, then the Hawkins Preparatory School for Boys in Gallatin about eight miles from his home. Durham indicates that Hawkins students sometimes "took" room and board in private homes near the school. Bob attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for three years (circa 1912-1914) and then found himself in Camp Pike, Arkansas training to participate in World War I. As with many military men during those years, he fell victim of the dread influenza epidemic and, therefore, never went overseas (2, 3).

While he was a student at the University, he carried the newspaper and solicited subscriptions in neighboring towns. When he returned to Knoxville in 1919, he was employed as a reporter for the Knoxville Sentinel, the predecessor of the News-Sentinel. He became a lasting friend of Wiley L. Morgan, managing editor of the Sentinel, who hired him. Warner Ogden, then city editor, stated, "I showed Bob around the courthouse and some of the other beats. In no time he had made a lot of contacts and was even turning out ‘early copy’ for the next day’s paper." When the Sentinel became the News-Sentinel in 1926, he was already a veteran of the political and city hall beats and, at times, covered the state legislature. He advanced to the position of city editor over a period of years.

Probably no Knoxvillian had more close friends among the influential "movers and shakers" in downtown Knoxville. One of them was Chancellor A.E. Mitchell. The chancellor provided one of the explanations for reporter Cunningham’s nickname, "Scoop."  Mitchell told this story, "One day, covering the court house, he picked up a petition from the basket, not knowing it was a year old and had been pulled out of the files for me for a hearing. He phoned it in, and the first thing I knew, it was in the paper." The chancellor kidded him, "What kind of scoop is that, Bob?" The nickname stuck.

While he was attending the University of Tennessee, Bob met fellow student Reba Gentry. Their courtship lasted through his military service and while Reba established her career as an elementary school teacher. Once, when he was covering a school board meeting, some of the school officials decided to play a joke on him. Superintendent W.E. Miller was reading a list of names of teachers who were resigning for various reasons. Superintendent Miller said, "Reba Gentry, resigning to get married." Bob jumped to his feet and said, "Why, that’s my girl!" Sometime later, December 29, 1923, they were married (4).

Although he was unassuming, Bob Cunningham was a student of the classics in both American and English literature. During the Civil War Centennial years (1961-1965), he used his long-term interest in and extensive knowledge of American history to write a series of articles on the causes of the war. These excellent essays were considered by many to be among the best of the thousands of essays on the subject during those Centennial years. He was also well versed in the history of Fountain City and many of his columns discussed places and events connected with that suburb of Knoxville (5).

However, one piece of history stood out in his memory because of a story that he could not get. In 1923, not long after the assassination of President Warren Harding, a Senate committee was investigating the Teapot Dome scandal. In a story making national headlines Albert B. Fall, Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, was accused of accepting bribes from big oil company barons who wanted to drill for oil in lands set aside for reserves for the U.S. Navy. One of those big oilmen, E.L.Doheny, passed through Knoxville on the train en route to Washington to testify. When Doheny emerged from the back of his private car, who should be standing by the tracks seeking an interview but Bob Cunningham? Bob said later, "I asked him everything I could think of, but he wouldn’t answer anything. The next day, he spilled everything to the committee." Another reporter, Knoxville-born John Y. Anderson (CHS 1910), would later win the Pulitzer Prize for his series of stories on the scandal in the St. Louis Post Dispatch (6).

Courtly, silver-haired Bob Cunningham, with his old-school manners and old-fashioned work ethic, could often be seen proceeding along Gay Street to the S&W Cafeteria for lunch, while visiting with friends along the way pursuing another "scoop." In his early days he was often the last to leave the office still seeking late breaking news after others had departed. Even after his retirement in 1968 on his 77th birthday and after a 49-year newspaper career, he would visit the paper and sometimes would write a story on some subject that interested him. Eventually, it became difficult for him to find one of the old manual typewriters he had always used and, unfortunately for his faithful readers, his contributions ceased.

The Cunningham Home on East Adair Drive

The Cunninghams and their son, Robert G. Cunningham (CHS 1946, UT 1951), who became a stock broker in Chattanooga, lived on East Adair Drive (Adair Gardens) for many years.

Robert L. Cunningham, a member of the Central Methodist Church and former member of the board, passed away on February 1, 1979. He is interred at Greenwood Cemetery beside his wife of 56 years. The Editor of the Knoxville News-Sentinel summed up "Scoop" Cunningham’s contributions in these words:

Occasionally in editorials we eulogize Knoxvillians who have died, leaving behind long lists of business, religious and civic accomplishments for which they are remembered. Today our subject is one of our own former colleagues, Robert L. (Bob) Cunningham, 86, who died Thursday. Bob’s newspaper career spanned 49 years before he retired from the News-Sentinel in 1968 on his 77th birthday.

As the story about his death stated, probably no Knoxvillian had more fast friends among the influential who lovingly called this silver-haired man "Scoop" Cunningham. He was truly a gentleman of the old school.

d-cnnham.doc (5/30/02, 6/5/02, 8/1/02, 8/7/02, 10/03/02, 6/18/03, Greenwood)

References:

1.  Sumner County Archives, 1860 U.S. Census Index, Sumner County (1996); Samuel D. Sistler, 1880 Census Index, Sumner County (1991); Margaret C. Snider and Joan H. Yorgason, Sumner County, Tennessee Cemetery Records (1981) and Personal Correspondence from Robert G. Cunningham, August 27, 2002.

2.  Walter T. Durham and John F. Creasy, A Celebration of Houses Built Before 1900 in Sumner County, Tennessee, (Gallatin, 1995); Walter T. Durham and James W. Thomas, A Pictorial History of Sumner County, Tennessee (1786-1986), (Gallatin, 1986) states that Hawkins Preparatory School opened about 1908 and became Gallatin Private Institute in 1920, then closed when Gallatin Central High School absorbed the students a few years later.

3.  "‘Scoop’ Cunningham, Retired Veteran N-S Reporter, Dies," Knoxville News-Sentinel, February 1, 1979.

4.  "Veteran N-S Reporter Soon To Be 77, Bob Cunningham Retiring," Knoxville News-Sentinel, February 11, 1978. Reba (Gentry) Cunningham, the daughter of William and Matilda (Miller) Gentry, was born on April 28, 1894 and died on November 6, 1986. She was a teacher in the Knox County schools.

5.  Bob Cunningham, "Causes of the Civil War," Knoxville News-Sentinel. The series of articles began on Sunday, August 21, 1960 with an article entitled, "40-Year ‘Cold War’ Over Slavery Preceded Conflict," and ended on October 23, 1960 with an article entitled, "John Brown’s Daring Raid Boosted Both Abolitionists and Secessionists." VERIFY: Columns on the Fountain Head Railway ("The Dummy Line"), the Big Fire, annexation, restoring Fountain City Lake and many others. EXPAND

6.  Whit Wirsing, "Pulitzer Prize Winner Buried Here (‘30’ Marks Newsman’s Grave)," Knoxville News-Sentinel, June 7, 1970; "Anderson Out," Time Magazine, January 31, 1938. John Y. Anderson (1893-1938) graduated from Central High School in 1910 at the age of 17. He was Washington correspondent for many of the 23 years he spent with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His close friendship with Huey P. Long, Senator George W. Norris, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Sentator Robert M. LaFollette Jr, John L. Lewis and Secretary Harold Ickes provided an inside view of Washington available to few others. He won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for his crusading reporting on the Teapot Dome scandal.

7.  "Bob Cunningham," Knoxville News-Sentinel, February 3, 1979.

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