SHENANDOAH, Iowa – The very popular, retired Shenandoah teacher Barbara Cunningham has long been like the herd boss holding all SHS alumni together. Now she has also taken a big step in helping current students, teachers and staff and those of the future – with a $5,000 donation to the Shenandoah Iowa Education Foundation.
“I’ll tell you what this is – it’s my birthday present to myself,” said Cunningham, who taught 35 years in the Shenandoah schools before retiring in 2000. “When I was a kid, my family didn’t have much money, so when it was your birthday, you might get a new pair of socks, or something like that. One year I remember getting a used bicycle, which was a pretty big present for us, but it came with a flat tire. I had to save up for a new tire before I could ride the bike.
“Now, later in life when I’ve got more resources, I get a little greedy when my birthday comes around. I usually get myself a pretty nice present. But, you know, when you’ve got everything you want, you might as well do something for somebody else. And I love the Shenandoah kids, the schools and the whole community.”
Cunningham said in her experience, “what’s made the Shenandoah schools special is the strong community involvement they’ve always had. Remember, I was the cheerleading sponsor for 34 years, so I spent a whole lot of time in the crowd at all those ball games. I got a strong sense from that about how much Shenandoah parents care about their kids, and how much they also care about their kids’ education.
“Another big factor, as I think back, has been the faculty. The people I came along with on the faculty were such fine, fine people, and a whole lot of them spent long careers here and have stayed here in retirement, too.”
Cunningham recalled attending a regional faculty-development meeting in Atlantic years ago, and “a speaker there told us, ‘The trouble with you teachers is you don’t stick around a community long enough to see how your students turn out years later.’ But for me and a lot of other Shenandoah teachers, we did stick around. I’ll tell you, it’s hard to express the pride I have now these last couple of years, starting to go to 50-year reunions of some of my earliest classes. That’s really rewarding. Our students turned into outstanding people!”
A Kansas native, Cunningham “moved around a lot” as she was growing up, because her father was in the insurance business and kept being transferred. “Wichita, Minneapolis, back to Wichita, Topeka, Derby and I may have missed a place or two,” she said. She graduated from Wichita North High School and earned her college degree at Emporia State University in Kansas. In her senior year, Shenandoah superintendent of schools Dr. L.A. Logan conducted on-campus interviews, offered her a job and directed that she come to Shenandoah, look over the school and community, and then sign her contract.
She joined the faculty in the late summer of 1965 as the high school girls’ physical education teacher. By the early 1970s, the phys ed classes became co-ed, and she continued teaching them until her last two years of service, when she became middle school guidance counselor. “At different times along the way, I also taught some elementary and junior high phys ed,” she said.
Cunningham has also been very active throughout her career in the Shenandoah Education Association, Iowa State Education Association and National Education Association. She served as local and regional president “a couple times each,” served on the ISEA Executive Board and on the NEA Resolutions Committee and the NEA Board of Directors. She continues with those organizations, representing retired teachers.
She said she feels confident “that public education is still in good hands today, even though right now in Iowa we’re not funding it like we probably should. But we still have people coming out of college who really care about kids and want to be good teachers. Most people in public education today are still very dedicated to the idea that we take care of all the kids – not just some of them, but all of them. And our schools are still in very good shape in Shenandoah, Iowa.”
She said after she retired, she never gave a serious thought to moving away from Shenandoah.
“Why on earth would I even consider that, with all I have here?” she said. “Nice-sized town, all the important services anybody needs, excellent music association and amenities, good schools, and you know, if I drive an hour or two, I can be at several airports and easily get anywhere I want.
“Another important thing, I lost a sister not so long ago. I bet it was four weeks after her death before a day came when people stopped saying something about it and checking on me. That makes a real difference in how you get through something like that. No, I’m not going anywhere. Shenandoah, Iowa, is a great place to be.
“And after you retire, you need to give back. I’m trying to do that.”
Shenandoah schools superintendent Dr. Kerri Nelson said the gift "is a very generous donation by Barb Cunningham. She taught in Shenandoah and has made a substantial investment of time and resources to education over the years. Her leadership has made a difference. This monetary gift will make a last impact for years to come."