Tom Cunningham, a decorated Naval pilot in World War II who was shot down in the Pacific during one of his flights in a Hellcat, died Nov. 1 in Santa Rosa. He was 92.
Thomas Cunningham was born in Bismarck, Ill., to Cordelia and Harry Cunningham. He was 7 when his father was killed in a street-car accident. Tom Cunningham was sent to live with his grandparents because his mother had to go back to work.
“He didn't talk about the emotional side of losing his dad, but he often reminisced about the wonderful, wonderful times on grandma and grandpa's farm,” said Cunningham's daughter, Jan Schultz of Petaluma.
Cunningham enrolled at the University of Illinois in Champaign, where he lettered in basketball and polo. He left just shy of earning his degree to enlist in the Navy, where he became a fighter pilot specializing in night missions off of the USS Hornet and the USS Yorktown.
Cunningham was shot down over the Pacific but was picked up by a U.S. destroyer. He was then sent to Florida, where he finished his assignment as a flight instructor.
Cunningham was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart, two air medals and other citations, his family said.
When he returned from the war, he married his college sweetheart, Mary Lamoree on Jan. 17, 1945. His habit of sending Mary love letters from his time in the Navy continued as he embarked on a career in sales, Schultz said.
The family spent time in Florida, Chicago, Northern California and Southern California before Cunningham retired from his stint as a plant manager of an aluminum factory and he and Mary bought eight acres on Slusser Road in 1983.
The pair eventually planted pinot noir grapes, and Cunningham cultivated successful crops for years, Schultz said.
“He was hands-on for many years,” she said. “He would disc between the rows, drive up to see the weigh master. He'd go and check the sugar content.”
Every winter, Cunningham would wrap scores of small holiday gifts and, wearing a Santa cap on his head, hand them out to children. Cunningham would always ask the parents first and some would decline the gift, but the vast majority would gratefully accept the kindness of a stranger, Schultz said.
“He'd say, 'It seems likes it's within the Christmas spirit, happy holidays,'” she said.
“He enjoyed the small things in life,” Schultz said. “He would say, 'Look at that sunset,' or 'Look at the grapes, they are just starting to bud.'”
In addition to his daughter Jan, Cunningham is survived by his wife of 68 years, Mary Cunningham of Santa Rosa; daughter Sandy Kriegsman of Petaluma; and three grandchildren.
No services are planned. A private family celebration will be held at a later date.