One of Buffalo’s best-known auctioneers had a different name on his business card when he broke into the auction business more than 40 years ago.
But after people started calling him “Cash” Cunningham, he liked the distinction it gave him.
And it stuck.
Before long, he had his first name legally changed to Cash.
He went on to build one of the largest auction houses in upstate New York, Cash Auctions and Realty in the Town of Tonawanda. Known for his ability to get top dollar at his sales, he organized numerous high-profile liquidations in the Buffalo area and was licensed to operate in 11 states.
He also was much sought-after as a celebrity auctioneer for charities. He volunteered his services for as many as 50 events a year.
“I never like to say no,” he said, of his charity work. “My feeling is if we are available, we will do it.”
Mr. Cunningham died Thursday in Hospice Buffalo, Cheektowaga, after a battle with cancer. He was 65.
“Cash was everywhere,” said Pete Augustine, chairman of the board of the Women and Children’s Hospital Foundation, where Cunningham had served since 1999, including five years as chairman. “It was rare to be at an auction or charitable event and not see him. And he was just a great guy. I don’t think there was anybody who didn’t have a good thing to say about Cash.”
Born Sept. 23, 1951, in Cleveland, Raymond Cunningham was the fifth of eight children and he came to Buffalo at age 7 when his father took a job with Sylvania Corp.
After graduating from Amherst Central High School in 1969, he enlisted in the Army. His two years of service included a tour of duty in Vietnam.
Returning to Buffalo, he took business courses at night at Bryant & Stratton Business Institute and operated gas stations.
Then he discovered the auction business. By 1975, he was a licensed auctioneer, certified through a program at Indiana University. He worked for another local auction house, then left in 1986 to start his own auction business.
Cunningham’s most notable projects included the sale of hundreds of unclaimed bank safe deposit boxes and some of the Buffalo area’s best-known buildings – Holy Angels Academy, the Statler Tower, the abandoned Freezer Queen plant on the Outer Harbor and a rare reverse auction in 1996 of the former AM&A’s flagship department store on Main Street.
In a profile in The Buffalo News in 2000, he declared, “We pride ourselves on getting the last nickel off every bid.”
Business reporter Chet Bridger noted that “getting that last nickel often requires a wide smile, a friendly disposition, and a passable stand-up comedy act.”
“Humor is real important in an auction,” Cunningham said. “If people are laughing and having fun, they’re going to stay a little longer and bid a little higher.”
Cunningham’s company also had a number of real estate holdings. He was hailed by preservationists for rescuing the Squier House at 1313 Main St., a former orphanage and the previous home of Erie Community College City Campus, after a court order forced him to abandon plans to demolish it. In 2004, the Preservation Coalition of Erie County recognized his efforts by giving him its Pewter Plate Award.
A Williamsville resident, he also was a board member of the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse and the SPCA Serving Erie County.
He received numerous awards from Hospice Buffalo and Women and Children’s Hospital. The family area in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in the new Oishei Children’s Hospital has been named in his honor.
Other honors include the Kaleida Health Spirit Award in 2006, the New York State Commercial Association of Realtors’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, the Canisius High School Gambit Loyalty Award in 2011, the D’Youville College Community Service Award in 2012 and the Business First Brick by Brick Award earlier this year.
Women & Children’s Hospital, in an official statement Thursday evening, noted, “Our community has lost a great friend and leader. For more than 25 years Cash poured his heart and soul into Women & Children’s Hospital. His time and talent alone raised more than $1 million through the Festival of Trees, the Pro/Am Golf Tournament, the Celebration by the Shore and the Remington Restaurant Rally. Our hospital and our community are better today because of the generosity of Cash Cunningham. His infectious smile, generous spirit and caring heart will be missed but never forgotten.”
“He called me yesterday morning,” Elsie Dawe, president of the Women and Children’s Hospital Foundation, said Thursday, “to see what time he should be here Saturday night to do the auction for the Festival of Trees. He gave up weekends, he gave up trips to do charity.
“If something was needed, he just did it, but very quietly,” she added. “We couldn’t function without a van at the Foundation and so he just bought us one. This is the measure of a man you can’t measure. The stories about him are so endless.”
Two of his children, Thomas and Faye, died in 2001 in the crash of a small plane in Central New York as they were en route to an auction of surplus State Police vehicles.
Survivors include a son, Michael; two daughters, Nancy and Sally; four sisters, Therese Reinagel, Marie Kendall, Carol Robinson and Anne Awald; two brothers, Thomas and Patrick; and two grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held Monday at a time to be announced.