Note: Rusty Cunningham, one of my many mentors, has retired as editor of the LaCrosse Tribune in Wisconsin. Another of his friends asked some people from Rusty’s life to write letters, which are being collected as a retirement gift, to acknowledge his accomplishments and share stories and memories of all he has done for us. Here is the letter I wrote, which, I thought, could do double duty here.
My friendship with Rusty Cunningham, which began nearly 30 years ago, demonstrates the lengths of his patience and grace.
When Rusty joined the Ottumwa Courier as editor, I was an aggressive and arrogant young reporter who had been hired by the previous editor – like many others in the newsroom. We felt a strong allegiance to the old guy and were not overly welcoming at first to Rusty. To make it even worse, Rusty was a Cornhusker football fan. (It’s worth noting: The first version of this paragraph was about 300-words long. In my head, I heard Rusty saying, “For the love of God, Chris, get to the point.”)
None of this discouraged Rusty. He set about changing the Courier in ways that helped me even when I was a reluctant and stubborn beneficiary.
The Courier – with its four reporters – would do the kind of big, multiple-day reporting projects he had overseen at the Quad-City Times, Rusty told us. I didn’t believe him until I won a President’s Award from Lee Enterprises for a multiple-day project. And then there was the fateful meeting in Rusty’s office in which he said the Courier needed better business coverage. “Congratulations,” he said. “You’re the new business reporter.”
Kicking and screaming, I was forced to take on the new duties. It became the best thing that ever happened to me as a reporter. I grew to love it.
My debts to Rusty would be many if the list ended there. It does not. He was in his first of two stints as editor of the Tribune when I became editor of the Winona Daily News in 2000. He taught me a great deal about being a boss. Along the way, Rusty passed along his affinity for a really good deli sandwich and the walnut balls I assume they still serve at the Historic Trempealeau Hotel.
After I briefly left Lee in 2007, Rusty helped bring me back into the company as editor of the Muscatine Journal. It was a tumultuous time, but the newspaper filled a wall with awards won during my tenure. I will be forever proud of our accomplishments. And I don’t think any of the many good things that have happened to me personally over the past decade could have occurred if Rusty hadn’t helped me land in Muscatine.
I always will be grateful to call him my friend and mentor. I wish him the very best in retirement. He has earned it.
Thank you, Rusty, for everything. Congratulations and good luck.