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Our Rich History: Dr. Sandra Lee Cuni, innovative, dedicated teacher, poet; award is given in her honor

By Tom Ward
Special to NKyTribune

Part 22 of Our Series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University. 1971-2021”   

Dr. Sandra Lee Cuni was an innovative and dedicated teacher, as well as a creative writer and poet. She shared with her students her love of literature and literary criticism, though more importantly, she challenged them to develop their own creativity and artistic expression. She had notable success in those endeavors, even though her career at Thomas More College was cut short by her untimely death in 1973. Yet she left behind a legacy that has carried on her ideals to this day.

Sandra was born in Covington on August 1, 1937, to Cyril and Mildred (Hehman) Cuni. She grew up Catholic in St. Benedict Parish in her hometown. She graduated from Villa Madonna Academy in 1956 and then attended Villa Madonna College in downtown Covington, from which she graduated in 1960. Two years later she completed a master’s degree in English at the University of Southern Illinois.

Sandra Cuni, VMC Graduate, 1960. (TMU Archives)

Apparently, it had always been her goal to teach at some level and she fulfilled that goal primarily in Catholic schools. Before entering graduate school, she taught at Notre Dame of Providence Academy in Newport, 1960-1961, and served as a graduate assistant teaching Freshman English during her time at the University of Southern Illinois. After returning to the Northern Kentucky area, she taught for one year at Mother of Mercy Academy in Cincinnati, 1962-1963, and another year at Northern Dearborn High School in Dearborn, Ohio, 1963-1964 (VMC Faculty Information sheets and Records of Employment, TMU Archives).

Like many other VMC/TMC graduates, Sandra Cuni eventually returned to her alma mater. She was first employed at VMC in the Evening and Saturday Division in 1964-1965 to teach the Survey of English Literature I and II courses, plus a Survey of American Literature course during summer 1965 (Brochures for Evening and Saturday Division, fall 1964, and spring 1965; brochure for Summer Division 1965, TMU Archives). With recommendations from other department faculty, she was hired fulltime as an instructor in English, beginning with the fall 1965 semester. She was attracted to VMC not only as her alma mater but by the fact that it was a Catholic institution–she expressed to President Murphy her hope to join in “a successful effort to bring young men and women closer to themselves and God through literature and original composition” (Cuni to Murphy, April 11, 1965, TMU Archives).

She began her teaching career at the college, though, with an unusual request–Miss Cuni asked to take a leave of absence after she would complete only one year so she could then move ahead with her plans to get her PhD. She first considered going across the river to the University of Cincinnati, but Fr. Charles Rooks, the academic dean, encouraged her to consider another school because so many other VMC faculty already had degrees from UC. At the same time, he stated that taking a leave of absence after teaching for just one year was “somewhat unusual,” although he did not oppose it (Rooks to Cuni, Nov. 22, 1965, TMU Archives).

Miss Cuni returns to VMC as a teacher, 1966. (TMU Archives)

Before she made a final decision on a university, she wrote to Msgr. Murphy in the hope of securing assurance that she could return to teach at VMC after completing the 1966-1967 academic year elsewhere working toward her doctorate. She hoped that she would at least finish her coursework during that time and could be rehired for fall 1967. She also made it clear that she was only seeking a college teaching position and did not want to teach high school again (Cuni to Murphy, Nov. 22, 1965, TMU Archives).

Msgr. Murphy was hesitant to grant her request and replied that “I just do not believe it acceptable academic practice, Sandy, to grant a leave of absence to a faculty member in her first year on the faculty. Usually, I believe, the instructor ‘earns’ this kind of consideration by a longer association with the college.” Yet at the same time, he told her that “VMC would be even happier to have you on the staff with further progress toward your Ph.D.” (Murphy to Cuni, Nov. 30, 1965, TMU Archives).

In the end, Msgr. Murphy and Fr. Rooks decided against a formal leave of absence, but rather offered Miss Cuni a leave with a “gentlemen’s agreement” to give her a position again when she returned to VMC. She would receive credit for her year of teaching, but “years” on leave would not be counted toward her seniority (Murphy to Cuni, Jan. 5, 1966, TMU Archives). She found the proposal satisfactory, though she still claimed she could finish her coursework in one year, not in “years” as Msgr. Murphy seemed to expect (Cuni to Rooks, Jan. 8, 1966, TMU Archives).

For her PhD., Miss Cuni finally settled on the University of Pittsburgh where she began work on a doctorate in Victorian Literature in fall 1966. Initially, she was appointed as a teaching fellow and was granted a tuition scholarship (Cuni to Murphy, June 6, 1966, TMU Archives). Although she still believed she would be able to meet her timetable for her coursework, her teaching fellowship would not last until the end of the spring semester; an unexpected medical expense also made it imperative that she have a definite position lined up at VMC for fall 1967. As she explained to Fr. Rooks, “the choice now is not between Villa Madonna College and Graduate School, but between Villa Madonna and some other Institution that offers a full time position” (Cuni to Rooks, Mar. 7, 1967, TMU Archives). It was clear that her desire was to return to her alma mater again – fortunately, the college wanted Miss Cuni back as part of the English Department, even though it would take time yet to complete her doctoral dissertation (Rooks to Cuni, Mar. 9, 1967, TMU Archives).

For the rest of her teaching career, Sandra Cuni would remain at the college at which she began, and she established herself as a familiar member of the English Department. Over the years she took on more responsibilities that distinguished her as a valued member of the faculty. During her time at the college, she served various roles, such as assistant bibliographer and library consultant for the English Department, and in 1968 as secretary for Standard VI for the college’s self-study for reaccreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Perhaps most impressive is that her fellow faculty trusted her to be one of their representatives on the Board of Trustees for the 1972-1973 academic year (VMC Faculty Information sheets and Records of Employment, TMU Archives).

Miss Cuni hosts the Midwest English Conference at TMC, May 2 & 3, 1969, with Dr. Glenn Holder and Dr. Paul Engle. (TMU Archives)

One of her chief achievements stemmed from her activities outside of the college. As the Kentucky representative on the Executive Committee of the seven-state Midwest English Conference, she was instrumental in bringing the annual conference to Thomas More College on May 2 and 3, 1969. This event was an “opportunity for elementary, secondary and college English teachers to hear expert lectures and participate in illuminating informal discussion” (Conference brochure, TMU Archives). By all accounts she did an admirable job hosting it (Murphy to Cuni, May 7, 1969; Miami University English Dept.’s Mrs. Woodrow W. Williams to Murphy, May 21, 1969, TMU Archives). She was also a member of the National Council of Teachers of English.

When writing about Sandra Cuni as a teacher, it is important to try to describe her character and qualities in that role. Over several years she had been establishing her credibility and competence, which were recognized when she was formally accepted into the rank of associate professor beginning in September 1969. At the same time, however, she had also garnered attention as a professor with high standards, though some students would have said she was overly demanding.

When Ronald Mielech, chair of the English Department, recommended her for promotion in December 1968, he stated that there “is no question regarding her professional competence in the classroom.” But he continued, “In the interest of objectivity, however, I feel compelled to mention that a minority of students have complained of ‘personality conflicts’ with Miss Cuni,” yet it was equally important for him to point out that “the superior students in our department are devoid of such complaints” (Mielech note, Dec. 1968, TMU Archives).

This seemed to be a common theme recognized and noted by other professors who knew her. Those who commented on the matter also noted that all the “good” students valued her challenging methods. Another department chair observed that she was fair, though “she does not suffer fools gladly”; yet “most of her students learn to understand her and all students admire her, including those who are fighting to get out of her classes.” (Faculty Achievement Record, Feb. 11, 1971, TMU Archives)

Whatever some might have thought of her, Miss Cuni always had her students in mind. She took student advising seriously and often revised her courses to update and improve them. She started a student literary club called “Grub Street,” which met monthly for several years at her home to provide a forum for students to discuss their own writing. She supported students in developing a literary journal, entitled Jesture, that published students’ poetry, prose and art. It preceded the current literary journal Words. When one of her student poets died suddenly, she attempted to raise money to memorialize him by having one of his poems engraved on his monument (Undated Cuni memo to TMC faculty and staff, TMU Archives).

Miss Cuni with English Department Faculty, Sr. Judith Hock, OSB, Ronald Mielech and Sr. Agnes Margaret Humbert, CDP, early 1970s. (TMU Archives)

Cuni was not afraid to speak out when she saw something she thought was unfair or wrong. She wrote a letter, addressed to various college committees, in which she defended a student whose punishment she believed to be excessive: “Isn’t it possible to reprimand him and then forgive him”? (Cuni to TMC committees and community, April 28, 1970, TMU Archives). She also spoke critically of the Alumni Board’s attempt to have the controversial magazine Evergreen removed from the TMC Library in repudiation of the Library Committee’s decision to retain it. The alumni claimed the magazine was obscene. Miss Cuni believed it was a decision to be made by the proper academic personnel, as well as a matter of rejecting censorship (Cuni to Fr. Rooks, Sept. 17, 1970; she noted that she also sent copies to the Alumni Board, TMU Archives).

In May 1972, Sandra Cuni finally attained her PhD from the University of Pittsburgh. Her dissertation was on Matthew Arnold. In a later letter that President Richard DeGraff wrote to the IRS, he noted that Dr. Cuni had “received no educational grants or aid for expense reimbursement” from TMC, but had paid all expenses herself (DeGraff to IRS, Nov. 16, 1972, TMU Archives). In her new position as Dr. Cuni, she served as the master of ceremonies for the dedication of the recently completed Science Wing in September 1972, even though she was part of the liberal arts faculty rather than the sciences. Dr. DeGraff praised her “Master of Ceremonyship [sic]” (DeGraff to Cuni, Sept. 26, 1972, TMU Archives).

It was a great tragedy for Dr. Cuni, as well as for her students and the entire community, that she would not be able to enjoy her new status at the college for long, that she would not even live to see the end of the academic year. What was first suspected to be nothing more than an inner ear infection was in fact a brain tumor. After surgery was performed at St. Elizabeth Hospital on April 12, 1973, she never regained consciousness and passed away on April 16 at the age of thirty-five. Her funeral was held at St. Benedict Church two days later. Dr. DeGraff closed the college early that day so that the TMC community could attend (DeGraff memo, April 17, 1973, TMU Archives).

Photo used for the image on the Cuni Award Plaque. (TMU Archives)

The Board of Trustees, of which she was then a faculty representative, acknowledged her death at its May 21 meeting with a resolution: “. . . her Christian witness has been remarkable during her tenure at the college and especially in the last weeks of her illness, and an inspiration to all faculty, staff and students,” concluding with an expression of the college’s “profound sense of grief and loss” (Board minutes, May 21, 1973, TMU Archives). Undoubtedly, that loss was experienced most deeply by her mother and sister, but also by the English Department and all of her friends at TMC.

Although only one book of her poetry was posthumously published, her work was honored at TMC in 1978 by renaming the student journal “Words” after one of her poems of the same title. The first issues were dedicated to her memory. An even greater honor was the establishment in 1974 of the Sandra L. Cuni Award to encourage creative writing. Many donors contributed to making this award a reality. This continuing award is given each year to a student who best exemplifies her ideals for writing so that “her high standards will have meaning for writers of the future…” (Cuni Award plaque). A plaque with Dr. Cuni’s likeness engraved on it, along with the names of every annual award winner, hangs on the wall outside the Benedictine Library. It also highlights a verse from one of her poems, “Christ You are Here! You are in the warm and liquid of the present…” (Cuni Award plaque). Next to it is a portrait of Dr. Cuni by John Powers.

Some years later, a display was created in the TMC Library to honor Dr. Cuni’s legacy. Two of its panels well summarized who Sandra Cuni was: one stated that “Dr. Cuni appreciated the artistic use of language”; another characterized her as “bold, confident, and outspoken. She stood by those she believed in without a concern for what other people may think.” Dr. Cuni was “an extraordinary professor, friend, and woman. She deserves much recognition” (Notes by Allison Cole). Sandra Cuni found recognition during her short life, and through the Cuni Award, remains an inspiration to all our aspiring young writers at TMU.

Tom Ward is the Archivist of Thomas More University. He holds an MA in History from Xavier University, Cincinnati. He can be contacted at wardt@thomasmore.edu .

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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