Frank Cunningham (center) visited with Governor Chris Gregoire (left) and her husband Mike during his trip to Olympia where he was honored for his life-long service to the community and nation as a coach and teacher.
Rower Frank Cunningham turns 90, honored in state senate
On February 10th, Ballardite Frank Cunningham celebrated his 90th birthday. Reaching your 90th birthday is a gift in and of itself but the lifelong rower was also given a very unique present by the State of Washington.
On February 2, 2012, the Washington State Senate passed Resolution 8675 in his honor. Sponsored by Senators Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Paull Shin, Resolution 8675 honors Cunningham for his service to his community and the nation as a teacher and coach.
"It was fun to meet the governor and it is nice to get that kind of attention," Cunningham said. "But it was kind of a charade."
"It doesn't compare to the things that my students made with their own hands. I feel quite sentimental about that," added Cunningham, who was a teacher for thirty years and a coach for fifty.
At the presentation of the resolution, Cunningham visited with Governor Chris Gregoire and even ran into an old rowing mate of his - Representative Hans Dunshee.
"I rowed against him when he was an undergrad and I was sixty-something at the time. He had difficulty accepting that I beat him," Cunningham said, laughing.
Beating 20-year-olds when he was well into his sixties was not uncommon, and for a long time it appeared that Cunningham would be rowing until the very last day of his life, but age finally set in at 82.
"I had fallen out of the boat and I was so old and weak that I couldn't get back in," he recalled. "I took myself off the water. I was becoming a liability to the club and I didn't want that."
On nice days Cunningham can still be found at the Lake Washington Rowing Club, where he served as head coach for many years, training national and Olympic competitors and local residents alike.
"I hate to say that I can't or won't or don't coach anymore because I would disappear," Cunningham said.
Cunningham started rowing in 1937, when he was a schoolboy in Lowell, Massachusetts.
"It was the only organized sport I was good at," he said.
He continued rowing at Harvard, the university his father, grandfather, and all the other men in his family had attended.
Cunningham was the stroke and captain of the undefeated freshman lightweight crew in 1941 and the undefeated junior varsity lightweight boat in 1942.
His college career was interrupted as he served in the US Marine Corps, but he continued to row upon his return to Harvard and stroked the victorious 1947 Harvard Varsity Eight to national prominence.
The crew went to eastern and national championships and set a world record for 2,000 meters, a feat for which Cunningham and his boatmates were ultimately inducted into the Rowing Hall of Fame.
"I didn't know it at the time but as I was bumbling along in my engineering degree, I was actually majoring in rowing," Cunningham said.
He moved to Seattle following his graduation, and Cunningham immediately immersed himself in the rowing scene, joining Chuck Moriarty in coaching for the summer Junior Rowing Program, which would expand into the Green Lake Crew.
Coaching was only a volunteer position, so Cunningham went to work at Boeing. On his first day at Boeing he not only found a job, he also met his future wife.
Unhappy in a dead-end job at Boeing, it soon became obvious to Cunningham that he wasn't cut out for becoming a Boeing engineer, and a friend suggested that he teach.
With hesitation Cunningham enrolled in the education program at the University of Washington and became an English teacher.
"I had no credentials for English. I always felt like a square peg in a round hole. I was a complete fraud," he said.
But after five years of teaching English at Edmonds High School, Cunningham started to recognize that his diverse background actually freed him and set him apart for the other teachers.
"English class became very personal for me and students responded to that," he said. "I acquired a great deal of confidence and when I left the classroom after 30 years I felt that I had made the right decision."
While teaching, first at Edmonds and later at Lakeside High School, Cunningham also served as rowing coach and boatwright.
"A student once thought I was a shop teacher. That's the highest compliment I have ever got," Cunningham said.
When asked if he was a better coach or racer, Cunningham paused.
"I have won so many races that I guess I was a more successful racer. But winning alone doesn't make you a good coach. The idea of success in coaching is elusive," he said.
For Cunningham rowing is as much about grace and perfection as it is about competing, aiming not only for speed but more so for the perfect stroke.
"You have to get past things in your own self to succeed. You have to forget about pride, fear of failure, winning and losing, and be tuned to the rhythm of the boat," he said. "When I was 78, I finally got it right and rowed a perfect stroke."
In 1999, Cunningham put his coaching techniques and experiences in words and published "The Sculler at Ease", a book that has become a standard in the sculler's library.
For his lifelong dedication to the sport he was awarded the US Rowing Medal of Honor in 2010.
While his time is now spent out of the water, Resolution 8675 shows that his legacy remains and his list of accolades continues to grow.