Howard Buffett names social service center after Larry Cunningham

Editor’s note: Former Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham and his wife, Janis, traveled to the home of Jerry’s brother in Decatur, Ill., recently to attend a special dedication of a social service center in his late brother’s honor. Following is the story of the dedication of the facility from the Decatur newspaper.

Rachel Garretson said she was sure her late father, Larry H. Cunningham, was uttering some choice words Tuesday about his old friend Howard Buffett.

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Buffett joked.

Garretson, who lives in Rio Rancho, N.M., was talking about the philanthropist’s decision to name the Salvation Army’s Social Service Center at Church and Wood streets after Cunningham, even though he “never put himself or his name before the cause.”

She continued, “But he would have been thrilled about the services and benefits this building will provide Decatur and all of those who will be helped.”

When Buffett gave the Salvation Army’s $5 million capital campaign its first major gift of $1.2 million five years ago, he reserved the right to name the agency’s social service center.

He exercised that right on Tuesday morning, May 31, at a ceremony that attracted more than 100 people, including Cunningham’s widow Sarah of Decatur, son Jeff of Atlanta, Ga., and brother Jerry of Maryville, Tenn.

Cunningham, former president of A.E. Staley Mfg. Co., died three months before the social service center opened in December 2008.

Buffett said he doesn’t ordinarily give to capital campaigns nor name buildings after people, but campaign Chairman Larry Foster got him excited about the project and earlier this year decided he wanted to memorialize Cunningham in this way.

“Larry (Cunningham) was one of those selfless, giving individuals who supported the community in many different ways,” Buffett said. “He was also that rare person who always kept his sense of humor.

“His positive attitude was what really defined him and made him stand above the crowd.”

In a surprise move, after touring the social service center and its 30 beds for homeless men, Buffett pledged $1 million to the Salvation Army to buy property just west of the center to build a homeless shelter for families.

“If there’s money left over, it can go to the facility, and if there’s not enough money, come see me,” Buffett said. “We would love to see a facility run with this kind of professionalism providing opportunities for families to get back on their feet.”

Maj. Bob Gauthier acted thunderstruck when he returned to the microphone to deliver the benediction.

“Howard,” Gauthier said, giving Buffett a long look. “Now you’re really going to see me sweating, because we are going to work toward that goal.

“Thank you, thank you so much, (a family shelter) has been my dream.”

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