William Lloyd Cunningham, a Santa Rosa native, teacher and school superintendent who served as former Gov. George Deukmejian’s education adviser, died Oct. 3 after battling melanoma.
Cunningham, 82, was described as a “leading California educator” by the Association of California School Administrators, the professional organization he led during the 1970s.
He began his career in education in 1950 at Dunbar School in Glen Ellen, teaching along with his wife, before he become superintendent in a half-dozen school districts in Northern and Southern California over the next three decades.
He made the leap to superintendent in 1956 at the Middletown School District in Lake County. “He drove the school bus, taught and was principal in Middletown, then was asked to be superintendent,” said his daughter Kerry Cunningham Galton of Del Mar.
Cunningham, who graduated from Santa Rosa High School in 1944, was a fourth-generation Californian whose grandfather, William Lamb Cunningham, was a Sonoma County supervisor in the early 1900s.
In high school, Cunningham was a student leader, active in theater and journalism, and also ran a radio show on KSRO.
In June 1944, he was drafted into the Army and joined the 3rd Infantry Division’s campaign through Southern Germany.
His dangerous duty on reconnaissance missions led to his brief capture on two occasions, but he managed to escape, according to his family. He was awarded two Purple Hearts.
At the war’s conclusion, he served for a time as a radio announcer for the Armed Forces Network.
When he returned to the United States, Cunningham attended College of the Pacific in Stockton, where he met his wife, Patricia Ihinger.
After his early start as a teacher in Glen Ellen, Cunningham would go on to earn an administrative credential at San Francisco State College and a doctorate in education at Columbia University in New York.
In 1971, he was chosen to lead the newly formed professional organization, the Association of California School Administrators. It since has grown to become the largest umbrella organization for school leaders in the nation, serving more than 16,000 school leaders.
Cunningham was credited with building a strong professional development program to increase the skills of its members. He also built a legislative program to expand the political clout and reputation of the ACSA.
“His energy level was off the charts,” said Bob Wells, the current executive director of the organization.
“Bigger than that were his people skills,” he said. “Bill listened and talked to people and trusted them.”
Cunningham was remembered for his willingness to jump into his MG convertible to drive long distances to talk to educators, before he became a pilot and flew to different corners of the state.
He served as Sacramento County schools superintendent before being selected by Deukmejian to be his education adviser from 1983 to 1987.
Cunningham had many interests, including baseball, tennis and boxing from his early days in Santa Rosa when he fought matches under an alias, according to his family.
When he retired from education in 1987, he took up golf and traveled. After his wife’s death in 1997, he met his companion, Allie Young of Lincoln.
Still energetic and longing for adventure, William joined his cousin Steve Ledson in 2004 to bring the Cunningham name back to the wine industry. With the family winery being shut down during prohibition, William and Steve decided to honor William’s great grandfather and Steve’s Great-great grandfather; Zina Hyde Cunningham, who migrated to Sonoma County in 1859, by opening Zina Hyde Cunningham Winery in Boonville, California.
Survivors include his other children, Shalee Cunningham of Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Kyle Cunningham of Rochester, Minn.; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Burial was at Santa Rosa Memorial Park.