Every now and then, life presents us with an opportunity that we wouldn’t ordinarily think to pursue on our own accord. When we embrace such an open door with a “Why not?” attitude, it can lead to an entertaining detour, or a life-altering adventure.
Long-time OU political science professor Dr. Ronnie Averyt presented such an opportunity to Jeff Cunningham ’65 back in December of 1964.
Cunningham thought he had his career path lined out following graduation from OU. Though he was a history/political science major, he was extensively involved in speech and debate, with enough credit hours for a double major. “At the time of my graduation, my intent was to get advanced degrees and ultimately become a college debate coach and speech teacher,” he said. “My selection of classes in political science had largely to do with my general interest in politics and the enthusiasm of both Ronnie and Keith (Shumway) in their subject matter.”
Though he had at one time considered returning to his home state of Idaho to enter politics, when his wife-to-be, Sharon Bond ’65, moved to Omaha, Nebraska, to teach French following graduation, he instead became a student and teaching assistant at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and made weekend road trips to visit her. They were married in August of 1966, and the couple immediately moved to Minot, North Dakota, where Cunningham had taken a one-year appointment as speech teacher and debate coach. Sharon secured a job as a French teacher at Minot High School. “My expectation was that after the year in Minot, I would return to Lincoln to finish the work on my MA and then seek a teaching position which would allow me to begin additional post graduate work.”
That’s when the 1964 “Why not?” moment returned to change his life. During his senior year, representatives from the U.S. State Department were visiting the University of Kansas, and Doc Averyt was able to coordinate a piggy-back visit to the OU campus. “That visit ultimately led to several of us (including Ronnie) traveling to Lawrence on a cold December day to take the written examination for the Foreign Service. On my own, I would never have thought of taking the exam, nor would I have had the means to get to Lawrence – I had no car in those days. So, in a sense, I owe my entire career to that action by Ronnie.”
If someone scored high enough on the written exam in December, he or she was informed in late spring of a date and time for an oral exam in Washington, D.C. Then, if the oral exam panel recommended him/her for a position, a background investigation was conducted, followed by the offer of an appointment.
“In March of 1967, I received a call asking if I could be in D.C. that summer,” said Cunningham. “Sharon and I agreed that if we did not like the Foreign Service we could always quit, but if we did not say yes, we would never know. So we went. I was one of the youngest members of my entering class.”
So began a 30-year career as a Foreign Service officer of the U.S. Department of State. Of four career tracks available to officers (Administrative, Consular, Economic, and Political), Cunningham served in each at one time or another in 10 countries around the globe.
With titles ranging from Vice Consul, Consul, and Attaché, to Counselor of Embassy for Economic Affairs, among others, Cunningham’s responsibilities varied widely. “On occasion, I referred to myself as the residual affairs officer,” he jokes, “as often I was called upon to focus on activities that did not fall in anyone else’s portfolio.” Whether interviewing people for visas, reporting to Washington on political developments, researching and reporting on the local economy, working on contracts for goods and services, meeting and working with senior host country leaders, or studying intensely for more specialized roles such as senior economist or petroleum attaché, the roles were rarely boring.
“Being escorted to and from work by armed guards left a lasting impression,” recounted Cunningham. “And the need to travel extensively, usually on business, in every country was a grand opportunity. Another highlight was being the local ‘man on the spot’ for official visits that I was largely responsible for putting into place – President Ford to Japan, Vice-President George H.W. Bush to British Columbia, and numerous senators, representatives and cabinet officials in every post. Likewise, the opportunity to make new friends, both among hostcountry and international organization officials, as well as Embassy staff, remains a fond memory.”
Though his career took a political turn instead of staying on the debate/speech path he had intended, the skills Cunningham developed during his forensics activities at OU served him well throughout his diplomatic career. “In diplomacy, as well as many other areas of life, you often need to be able to present unpalatable ideas and actions in a way that does not offend the hearer,” said Cunningham. “You need to be able to think on your feet and marshal facts when presented with arguments contrary to your own position. The strength of OU was and continues to be the personal day-to-day contact with open-minded faculty against whom I was constantly called upon to test ideas and philosophy. This encouraged personal intellectual growth and offered an opportunity I could not have had in a large state school.”
Cunningham acknowledges that his “Why not?” moment changed Sharon’s life back in 1964, as well. However, the Foreign Service life suited her, and she found ways to pursue a career of her own in between all of the duties of setting up house every couple of years, hosting diplomatic social events, and securing schooling for their daughter, Paige. She used her teacher training in several countries and became involved with the school library in Japan, which ultimately led to her work in Washington, D.C. at the Georgetown University Law Center and her decision to attend the University of Maryland, where she received her MA in Library Science. Interestingly, Paige also pursued both an MA and a PhD in Library and Information Science.
Cunningham retired from the Foreign Service in 1998, after which he and Sharon moved to Tacoma, Washington. Since Sharon was largely raised in Williamsburg, Kansas, they return to OU every couple of years or more to reconnect with family and friends, particularly Mike Twedt, Cunningham’s debate coach at OU, and his wife, Judy.
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