Merrimon Cuninggim, educator and authority on philanthropy

November 07, 1995|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Merrimon Cuninggim, an educator who was one of the nation's foremost authorities on philanthropy, died Wednesday of prostate cancer at Broadmead retirement community. He was 84.

Besides his work in philanthropy, he was an ordained Methodist minister who once was dean of the Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

It was during his leadership that Perkins became the first graduate school in the South to desegregate, two years before the Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, in 1954.

Dr. Cuninggim also was an accomplished self-taught tennis player, competing at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open at Forest Hills in the late 1930s and playing throughout his life.

Dr. Cuninggim served as executive director and president of the Danforth Foundation, established by the Ralston Purina family, from 1960 until 1973 when he resigned over what he thought was a conflict of interest.

That was the awarding of a $60 million grant to Washington University when William Danforth was serving as chairman of the foundation and also was chancellor of the university.

"He always thought that giving money away was difficult and you had to be so careful and objective," said his wife, the former Whitty Daniel, whom he married in 1939.

It was during Dr. Cuninggim's tenure that the Danforth Foundation became a recognized leader in making direct grants to colleges and universities and providing fellowships to graduate students.

He served as an adviser on program management to the president of the Ford Foundation from 1973 to 1975; was president of Salem College in Winston-Salem, N.C., from 1976 to 1979; and founded the Center for Effective Philanthropy in 1979 in Winston-Salem. He retired in 1987.

"We were successful in helping foundations evaluate their programs," said an associate, Harold Howe II, of Concord, Mass. "Our outlook wasn't just confined to education, it was fairly wide-ranging and included health as well as the arts."

Known for not being an ivory tower academician, Dr. Cuninggim was described by Mr. Howe as a "do-gooder who didn't take himself too seriously."

He was a prolific author of articles and books on the subject of philanthropy, including "Private Money and Public Service: The Role of Foundations in American Society" in 1972, and his last book in 1994, "Uneasy Partners: The College and the Church."

Of the desegregation turmoil, Mrs. Cuninggim said, "Oh, we paid for that one. We had rocks thrown at our children and garbage strewn all over the lawn, but he was steadfast in his convictions."

Born the son of a professor in Nashville, Tenn., he was raised in Kansas City, Mo., and earned his bachelor's degree from Vanderbilt University in 1931, a master's in English from Duke University in 1933, and a bachelor's and master's degree from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar in 1936. He earned a bachelor's degree in divinity and a doctorate in education from Yale University.

He began his academic career in 1941 teaching religion at Emory and Henry College and Denison University. He joined the Navy in 1944 and served as a Navy chaplain aboard the battleship Tennessee in the Pacific.

He continued his academic career as head of the religion department at Pomona College from 1946 to 1951.

A memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. Dec. 9 at Broadmead, 13801 York Road, Cockeysville, where he had lived for the past six years.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Lee Neff of Seattle and Penny Cuninggim of Northampton, Mass.; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Terry Cuninggim Fund, Children's Hospital and Medical Center, 4800 Sand Point Way, N.E., Seattle 98105.

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