After five successful years with the JROTC program at Smith-Cotton, LTC (Ret.) Harry Cunningham is retiring.
“I used to work at the Pentagon. There they count the number of days,” Cunningham joked. “Here, it’s not a chore at all. It’s quite a treat to be with these kids.”
Cunningham has a long military resume, which includes 26 years of service in the Army – he was on the planning staff for a one star general in Korea, served with the U.S. Corp of Engineers in a district in Walla Walla, Wash., and he was stationed at the Pentagon during the Sept. 11 attacks. He luckily wasn’t in the building that day, because his office was “pretty well destroyed.”
He also taught JROTC at the Missouri Military Academy and Penn State. It was while he was at Penn State that he assisted with a summer camp at Ft. Dix in New Jersey that he “completely fell in love with the (JROTC) program.”
“In ’97 or ’98 that was the time I realized after retirement from the military, that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to work with high school students to be good leaders, have good character, improve their citizenship. To help them be better people.”
Cunningham came to Smith-Cotton after meeting Sgt. Major Randy Woods, who started the JROTC program in the Sedalia School District 200 in 2004, at a drill meet. Woods mentioned a position was available in Sedalia.
“He’s helped raise the standards, raise test scores, raise the commitment of these kids,” Woods said. “He’s helped in every aspect of their lives. He’s just a true leader. He’s had an impact on these kids and these kids just love him.”
Cunningham said he has enjoyed his time with the JROTC cadets in Sedalia, and under his leadership the raiders team brought home four national championships and the drill team brought home two. While he said it’s “terrific” to have had such success, he is more proud of his students and how they perform out of competitions.
“It’s great that these kids have won national championships several times, but the thing that really makes an impact though is the way the kids act when they’re on these trips,” he said. “They are so mature, they act exactly like we would expect persons several years their senior. They treat everyone with dignity and respect, say ‘yes sir,’ ‘thank you sir,’ ‘thank you ma’am.’ We get remarks from people in hotels and restaurants, ‘this is the best group we have ever seen’ and that makes all the difference.
“Competitions are great but it’s just one indication of how stellar kids these are. They are great in their own right, I love them all to death.”
Cunningham and his wife will now spend their time as missionaries for their church, something he said they’ve always wanted to do. They’ve submitted their applications and will find out in mid-July where they will be headed. He said they plan to do missionary work “for the rest of our lives.”
Cunningham had his last day of instruction Friday, and he said the idea of retirement didn’t hit him until that day. He also said what he’ll miss most about Sedalia 200 is the kids.
“It really struck home in the last month or two that I’m getting to the end of teaching these kids,” he said. “I looked at their faces as I was teaching (Friday), and what a breath of fresh air, even on the last day of instruction they know tests are over, but they all had papers out. They were all drinking from the fountain of good knowledge. The topic was how to make the world a better place. I used several anecdotes and tips from smart, smart people and to be able to see them get it and the light comes on in their eyes and they see they can make a difference.”
Woods said Cunningham has made a large impact at Smith-Cotton, and that he will be missed by everyone.
“I understand he’s going for a better cause, doing some missionary work with his wife, it’s something he’s always wanted to do in his lifetime, but I will tell you what a great gift he had to educate these young men and women so they can go further in their life,” Woods said. “The impact he had here is for a lifetime. It will be felt 50 years from now.
“On behalf of all the cadets and Smith-Cotton High School, we will truly miss him and wish him the best in his life. To be selfish, we wish he would stay, but unselfishly he’s going to a better cause.”