Mr. Cunnea was the only reason I took four years of high school Latin, when I could have been taking something more applicable to my coming life, like, say, Spanish or French, which people still speak.
He was a hefty, white-haired, good-natured man with a booming voice and a great chuckle. By the time I came along, he had long ago staked out his territory on the first floor of Morgan Park High School. He traveled back and forth across the hall between 103, his classroom, and 103 ½, the closet-size office where he ran business services for the school with the help of his lucky volunteers (all guys; as far as I know, no girls thought to apply) who got out of a study hall period to work for him.
A group of us went through the four years together under his watch – four years of Latin Club, four Latin banquets complete with homemade togas and Latin songs we made up, endless lessons from characters Publius and Furianus in our books, and thousands of reminders of “Joe hamburgers eats” our clue about how to form Latin sentences.
These occasions were fun and/or instructive but the most important day with Mr. Cunnea on what we thought was a normal day. Class normally started at 1:07 p.m. We were back from lunch, well-fed and ready to go, but where was Mr. Cunnea?
After a few strange minutes, he came in the classroom door, somber, carrying his usual black notebook. He took a minute to get everyone’s attention and told us that President Kennedy was dead, assassinated in Dallas. There were a few brief giggles of disbelief, then quiet, then unanswerable questions – who did it, why?
He told us we’d be going home early, soon. Someone whispered that she’d seen the art teacher, also a student favorite, crying, running down the upstairs hallway just before this period. The room took on a wide-eyed silence. He said we should go home and be with our parents. Our questions would be answered on television as the day went on. The only gift of that life-changing day was that he was the one to tell us.
When he died a couple of years ago at 93, I learned some of his back story: World War II veteran, teacher for 37 years; uncle to many; and thoroughly beloved in his personal South Side Irish (I’m guessing) life too, based on the condolence messages collected online. He even helped at least one young person pay for college.
Why did Mr. Cunnea have the impact he did on all of us who still remember him with great affection? He made us part of his little world on the first floor. He always showed respect to his students, and seemed to get a big kick out of our humor and antics, though we never pulled any stunts on him, like the torment we put one of our very young English teachers through with our loaded squirt guns. That would have been unthinkable. He never gave up his dignity, or let us think that we were pals.
We departed for college, and probably fared better in French and Spanish and some of the sciences for his instruction. We were quickly replaced by years’ worth of Latin students, who may not have known how lucky they were either, until later.
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