My good fortune in knowing Jerry Cunningham as we square dancers knew him, Ronny as I understand he was called by his family, began in 1988 when he came to the Times Square to learn square dancing. Jerry loved square dancing and was good at it. Though two years newer than my class, he was soon taking advanced and challenge classes with the most experienced of Times Squares. Later, new, comers to the club remarked on his kindness and the encouragement he offered them. Through the club I saw Jerry often at non-dancing events, too-- awards dinners, pool parties, and other social gatherings. He was always charming, graceful, funny- making faces, waving his arms in excited gestures, eating all of the time like a giant hummingbird. He was often “on stage,” larger than life.
Jerry and I often traveled together on trips to dance: Cherry Hill, Trenton, Rehoboth Beach, Mystic, Philadelphia, Washington. In the car or on the train, ·he was always a lively, wry, and amusing companion. He charmed people wherever he went. In Mystic last spring, dancers from New England were still asking about him why didn't he come to dance with us this year? These trips were fun for Jerry, but were also a kind of work; Jerry was fighting homophobia and racism with his dancing skills and his charm.
When the tremors began, Jerry began to withdraw from his Times Squares friends. Jerry had been in many ways a very private person. His Times Squares Directory entries attested to that. This-was-more serious. Try as I might, I couldn't coax him out for a movie or a meal, even with offers to pick him up in Brooklyn. Many of us who felt close to Jerry were hurt by this withdrawal. Little did we suspect initially that his hermit-like behavior was a gesture of kindness and caretaking on his part. He wanted to protect us from seeing the ravages of illness. He was proud as well, not wanting us to see him frail and remember him that way.
I feel that in his last year I was not a very good friend. I ceased to try forcing my companionship on him. When I learned he was in the hospital, I was unable to move myself bodily to visit him. I was not one of those family of blood and family of friends who came to nourish his soul and body. I did not fight to pierce the veil of his privacy. Maybe I was not such a negligent friend. Maybe I did what he wanted from me; I carried him in my heart and in my mind, missed him at dancing events and thought of him often as his vital, amusing self as I continue to do. Maybe what I did for him was to encourage you to remember Jerry as he was before illness deprived him of the vitality with which he lived most intensely.
The memory that comes to me most strongly at this time is of Jerry trooping out to the wilds of New Jersey every Monday night for a whole school year as part of a sextet of square dancers wanting to learn to round dance. This odd mix of ballroom and country western dancing appealed because it provided us an opportunity to learn a new dance vocabulary and new skills to add to our two stepping and waltzing. Jerry was a marvelous waltzer! Often Jerry would shake his head, wave his hands and say with disdain "this is too hard!” as he proceeded to be the best of us all. If it is true that the good die young, then Jerry really was among the best of us all.
Jerry Cunningham passed away, November 8th, after having been hospitalized for several months.
Jerry was born Dec. 26, 1948 and since has been a gift to all who knew him. He was a life-long Brooklyn resident, where he shared a two-family house with his mom. After graduating High School, he attended college before joining the Air Force. He remained in the Air Force for six years, enjoying his time in Italy and not enjoying it in North Dakota which helped make up his mind to leave the service. His work life was mostly legal secretarial and word processing duties.
He came to the Times Squares in the 1988-89 class, and was a quick study. During his years with the Club he achieved C-1 level, studied round dancing, was a beautiful two-stepper and waltzer, and he loved his line dancing. He had a great laugh and truly cared for people. He was an animal lover, with his fox terrier, Dutchess, and his two cats, Tigger and Trouble, all included on his answering machine. Jerry, always a private person, chose the last years before he died to withdraw from his dancing life. He loved his Square Dance World, he loved his square dance friends.
A memorial service was held on November 13th, in Queens that was well attended by Times Squares members. I know he will always be remembered as a fun, upbeat dancer. I'll miss his friendship, so let's dance a tip in his memory.
— Kenny Almos
- Times Squared newsletter, v.10 no.4 (Dec 1994), p.4-5
- Ibid., p.5