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Kentucky by Heart: Joe Cunningham, Chase grad, flips U.S. house seat in S. Carolina for dems

By Steve Flairty
Special to NKyTribune

Down in South Carolina, a politician running in the 2018 mid-term election with a close Kentucky connection just accomplished something pretty amazing. In a race for 1st District U.S. Representative, 36-year-old Joe Cunningham became the first Democrat to flip a House seat in the state since 1986. He defeated Republican Katie Arrington, and it was quite a shock to political pundits.

Joe Cunningham

But call it a pleasant surprise for many in the Bluegrass State, and here’s why.

Joe grew up in the western Kentucky town of Kuttawa, in Lyon County. His father, Bill Cunningham, is a highly respected Kentucky Supreme Court Justice and author several non-fiction books about Kentuckians who inspire. Joe’s mother, Paula Cunningham, formerly owned McClanahan Publishing Company, in Kuttawa. Joe is one of five children of the couple, all sons.

Interestingly, he took a circuitous path to reaching his goal of being a U.S. congressman. He received a B.S. degree in the field of ocean engineering and later worked with a private marine and environmental consulting firm in Naples, Florida. But like his father, Joe got a hankering to become a lawyer and came back to Kentucky and graduated from the Salmon Chase Law School at Northern Kentucky University. There, he was involved significantly in student government. Law degree in hand, it was back to South Carolina to practice law, and most recently, run for the office he won.

Joe and Bill Cunningham

I asked Bill, a long-time friend of mine, how he’d characterize his son in his new role.

“He’s a dealer in hope,” said his father. “He represents a rising generation of politicians who are steeped in the civility and Christian respect of their grandparents. It was a time when the political division was one of honest disagreement but mutual respect. They (the “rising generation”) have watched the ilk of partisanship in D.C. and want to change it.”

Bill concluded that young politicians like Joe have “old-fashioned values of respect and good will, with computer-age methods.”

It goes without saying that many Kentuckians and those outside our borders are longing to see those values powerfully emerge—and soon. Godspeed to you and your efforts toward civility, Joe Cunningham!

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Lots of people around Lexington are among those mourning the death of clergyman Dr. Marion Woodrow “Woody” Church, 75, who died in Greenwood, Indiana, on November 3. Though he moved to Greenwood in 1990 to work as a Biblical counselor at the Stones Crossing Church, he was a native of Ashland, Kentucky, and was the founding pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church, Lexington, and Church of the Savior in Nicholasville. He did college work at UK, EKU, and both Asbury and Lexington Theological seminaries.

Woody Church

Besides the thousands of individuals he affected positively over his lifetime, Woody’s personal story is quite inspiring. He was one of six children and their father was an alcoholic, with all of the attending problems. Woody was habitually truant from school and at age 16, he left home, moved into the basement of a funeral home and worked there to earn money for himself and his siblings. He finished high school, and while there, played basketball with Larry Conley (who later played hoops at UK and became a noted sportscaster) and both were on the Ashland Tomcats team that won the 1961 Kentucky High School Championship.

After high school, Woody served in the Army and saw action in Viet Nam as a helicopter medic. He was injured when the craft crashed and he was medically discharged and allowed to return home. Back in the United States, he decided to become a minister. To say that it was a good decision is an understatement.

Scott Luck, minister of Stones Crossing Church and also a son-in-law, remarked that Woody was involved in student government at Ashland High and “knew the name of every student in the school.” Luck also presented Woody as one who with great trust in his God, and who encouraged others “not to worry.”

In 2013, Woody received the highly respected “Sagamore of the Wabash” award from Indiana Governor Mike Pence, signifying the life of servitude he embraced. Because of the high standards needed for attainment, it had not been awarded for nine years.

He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Nancy; daughters Marianne Cox (Joe) and Luann Luck (Scott); and four grandchildren: Madeline and Hayden Cox and Harrison and Ryan Luck.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald).

To read more of Flairty’s Kentucky by Heart series, click here.

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