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Col. Patrick J. Cunningham, director of Naval & Military Park dies; guided park through lean times

April 2, 1938 -- March 24, 2017

On Saturday, the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park will open for the season.

But it won't be the same as it has been, for more than two decades.

The man who guided the park from lean years into a major Canalside tourist attraction -- sometimes refusing to accept a paycheck while secretly paying other workers' salaries -- will not be present.

Retired Army Col. Patrick J. Cunningham, the park's executive director, died Friday after a long illness.

"He was an extraordinary gentleman with a vast knowledge of military experience gained over 30 years," said Donald A. Alessi, chairman of the Naval and Military Park's board of directors.

A major figure in the Western New York military community and an advocate of fellow veterans, Cunningham had embraced the opportunity to take the helm at the park 24 years ago.

"He went so far as to loan the park money to meet payroll," Alessi said. "He did this without telling anyone or expecting any thanks. He had a real passion for the park and considered it a labor of love."

On Friday, the American flag on a ship mast situated at the entrance to the park, and another next to the gangway on the USS The Sullivans, were both lowered halfway in Cunningham's honor.

Col. Patrick Cunningham, executive director of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park, looks at some of the artwork on display for the American Society of Marine Artists' exhibition, "Blue Water/Still Water"in 2010. Both of these paintings are by Niagara Falls artist Robert Averill. The painting on the left is of Buffalo's Central Wharf, circa 1880. {Derek Gee / Buffalo News}

The 78-year-old Cunningham would have turned 79 next week. His wife, the former Sheila Shivens, died on June 12, 2014.

Cunningham died surrounded by his five children and his brother, Bishop Robert J. Cunningham of the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital in Amherst.

Cunningham, a Williamsville resident, died from a respiratory illness attributed in part to his exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.

"For the last eleven years, Col. Cunningham was not only my commanding officer, but my friend," said John M. Branning, a retired Navy senior chief petty officer who serves as the park's superintendent of ships.

In addition to his war service, Cunningham later supervised the Army's budget while he was assigned to the Pentagon. He returned home to the Buffalo area in 1989, after serving three decades in the Army.

When he was offered the top post at the park in 1993, Cunningham eagerly accepted it and the challenges of "continuing the military heritage and legacy of the park," Branning said.

"We have seen a historic rise in attendance and have been visited by people from over 100 countries and all 50 states last year," Branning said. "Because of Col. Cunningham's strategic vision in approving displays and updating existing displays, he truly advanced the visitor experience here."

The park averages about 80,000 visitors annually.

Knowing that he was in failing health, Alessi said, Cunningham provided the board with a succession plan. And in fact Thursday night the board appointed Retired Coast Guard Capt. Brian Roche as the new executive director, with the intention of having Cunningham stay on as executive director emeritus.

"They were going to work side by side in the transition period and had been looking forward to it," Alessi said.

Cunningham's devotion to this region went beyond the military. He had also served with the Boy Scouts of America, Greater Niagara Frontier Council, and in previous years as a youth football and basketball referee.

Cunningham frequently spoke at veterans events and served on committees to nominate local high school graduates for the country's military academies.

In addition to his brother, survivors include three sons: Michael, Sean and Patrick; two daughters, Colleen Burns and Kathleen; a sister Eileen Korn, and 14 grandchildren.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Tuesday by Bishop Cunningham in St. Pius X Catholic Church, 1700 N. French Road, Getzville.

Burial with full military honors will be at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.


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