New Jersey is lucky to have John Cunningham on its side. The prolific author has probably done more than anyone to increase awareness of the state's grand history. And even at 83, "Mr. New Jersey" - as Rutgers University dubbed him - is always ready to jump to the defense of the frequently maligned state.
He's also quick to support his alma mater, Madison's Drew University, which Cunningham recently revisited to talk to a writing class. He shared his views not only on writing, but on changes in the university and New Jersey that he's seen over the years.
Cunningham graduated from Drew in 1938, and has been writing all of his life. In that time, he has written more than 40 books and 2,500 articles, he estimates, and almost all have focused on New Jersey's people, places, and history. "When I started, I had a feeling like 'God, nobody cares enough about New Jersey to read it on a regular basis.' But I found out there are hundreds of thousands of people committed to holding it dear."
Though his suit jacket and his hair are grey, Cunningham is a strikingly colorful man, with a smirking smile, twinkle in his eye, and a lot more pep than your average 83-year-old. After introducing himself to the class, he decided to buck convention and ask the students about themselves instead of launching into a lecture. His quick wit caught many of the students off guard. "Let's start with you," he said, pointing to the student on his left. "Why were you late to class?"
Cunningham went on to inquire about each student's interest in writing. He stressed the importance of learning to write well, even for people who don't wish to become writers professionally. "One of the things I've noticed over the years is the inability of many educated people to express themselves either in writing or in speech. It's almost agonizing to hear an engineer talk, for example ... because they either haven't been encouraged to communicate or they have no sense of communication."
Most of the students responded with an uncertainty about the future and whether they wanted to follow writing as a profession, including the editor-in-chief of the Drew student paper, The Acorn. Cunningham was quick to respond with a story about the paper's editor from his days at Drew. "He didn't know what he wanted to do either," said Cunningham. "All he knew was he liked to write. But he got a job with Time-Life, and within a year he was writing for Fortune, and by the time he was 40 he owned Scientific American. So you don't know where it's going to go."
Cunningham started life with a love of words, he said. By the third or fourth grade, he was doing the Daily Record crossword puzzle every day. "Words always have been foremost in my mind. I like words, I like to look up words." When he was 14, he wrote sports for his high school newspaper. "It was something I loved to do, because I traveled with the school teams." At Drew, he became the sports editor of The Acorn, which was a great experience. "I'm a strong believer that anyone who wishes to write ought to be in some literary publication on the college campus. If I was hiring someone for a major newspaper it would be the first thing I looked for."
It was while he was at Drew that Cunningham met the man who he says most influenced him: psychology professor James McClintock. Cunningham was happy to add that last year he had the great fortune of getting enough money to endow the Drew counseling center and rename it after McClintock. Cunningham remembers McClintock's assignments vividly. "I first hated those red marks, but he was correcting to make me better. And one day he wrote on a paper of mine, 'You are a very good writer. Have you ever thought of it as a profession? He was the only person who ever encouraged me to be a writer."
And those encouragements paid off. He began working for the Daily Record while at Drew, becoming the full-time correspondent for eastern Morris County. It was difficult, Cunningham adds, because he had no car - but he managed, taking the bus, or hitchhiking. He also remembers that the trips resulted in many a night spent awake until at least 2 a.m. - but he loved it.
Cunningham's writing skills improved in leaps and bounds while at Drew. "I don't think I wrote a single paper in college more than 24 hours before it was due," Cunningham says. "But that didn't mean I wasn't working on it. You know how it can percolate in your mind? Then it all seems to come together the night before it's due for some reason." He adds that "I very seldom got less than a B+ or an A, but I could write, and maybe that made up for some of my lack of knowledge."
Cunningham is quick to point out that the writing tips he learned more than a half century ago still apply today. He follows the advice of William Strunk, whose Elements of Style is "the major influence on American writing today," according to Cunningham. "His thesis is 'keep it simple.'"
Cunningham also reminds students to always check spelling and use correct grammar. "One of the great deficiencies, I think, is that people are not totally familiar with the dictionary or the thesaurus. They seem like cumbersome tools, but if you use them correctly, they can be places of fascination." While Cunningham is computer-literate, he adds that the computer does not solve every problem. "You may be computer-literate, but your computer is not English-literate. It will not even spell correctly all the time."
Other writing tips are interspersed throughout Cunningham's visit. "Trust librarians," he says, commenting that they often have insight into references the writer may not think of. He cautions against using what he calls "strong words" too often. A word like "miraculous", he says, can only be used once in a story, if at all. "Use it more than once and its impact is deadened." He also tries to vary long sentences with short sentences, and use a lot of transitions. Cunningham tries to end every sentence or paragraph with a link to the next one. He adds, though, that this leads criticism that his stories are difficult to edit.
Not that he's had any problem getting writing jobs. After leaving Drew, Cunningham became a general assignment reporter. In 1947 he was asked to write a summer column, "Let's Explore," on day trips in New Jersey. Though it wound up being the start of his success as a historian, Cunningham was less than enthusiastic at first. "I desperately wanted something with blood in it, maybe some killing. You can't get a Pulitzer Prize for telling people how to get around on a Sunday." But people liked it.
In 1951 a history of railroading in the state followed, which lasted for 17 articles and was reprinted as a book. "I learned to write in anecdotal style, " Cunningham said. "I try very hard to intersperse anecdotes into a run of straight information. For me it's an entertaining way to write. It's a little difficult, however, because you have to have a lead into the anecdote and then you have to be able to get out of the anecdote. But it's a skill that can be acquired."
That skill went on to become Cunningham's greatest: injecting "human interest" into potentially dry history. "My history is mostly social history. I try to show the effect of history on the populace. I want to be a popular historian." Cunningham also adds that "I was into black history, and women's history, long before it became the thing to do. For me, a story is a story - whether it was many years ago, or yesterday."
After a series of articles on the state's 21 counties -- reprinted as This is New Jersey, a book that has never gone out of print -- Cunningham had a revelation. "What had happened to me is I had become a specialist." He explained that "If you want to succeed in a writing career, you have to specialize. Out there are people who care about everything." He began freelancing in 1953, and has found that his natural "beat" is 800 words. Among his more prestigious freelance jobs are the three articles he's written for National Geographic. "Each of them is almost like a college degree, because very few people get to write for them. I've always considered it the highest honor I've ever had."
His focus on New Jersey has lasted throughout his career, and leaves him better informed about the state than perhaps anyone. Naturally, this means he also has strong views on its current state of affairs. "The traffic is the major change, and I think our major problem. There are days when I have trouble just getting out of my driveway. It has outgrown us - I don't know how we can solve that." He also mentions another huge change - the state budget. "In 1950, the budget was about $315 million. Today that wouldn't even pay the interest." He also commented on the flight to the suburbs. "Towns without a center are very difficult to cover [as a reporter]." Then he sighs and adds, "Farming is almost gone, which is a shame."
Cunningham is currently working on several books and articles. "I just finished a book to be published on the 22nd of May, on Morristown High School. It happens to be my alma mater." He and current staff members of The Acorn are working out a way for him to start writing for the paper again, with historical pieces that will probably start appearing in September.
Writing about Drew again will bring Cunningham's writing full circle. Though he's had a career as comprehensive and diversified as the state he's focused on, his modesty remains intact. "I don't know whether I'm a good writer or not," he says. "People buy my stuff, and have for a long, long, time, and that's one index." After covering every nook and cranny in New Jersey, Drew remains one of his favorite places. "This is the University in the Forest. It is a place of great, great beauty. It may take you eight or 10 years before you come back and say 'My God - it is beautiful.'
"I'd rather have a Drew education than the education of anywhere else on earth. It gave me a solid liberal arts education. And I've been surprised over the years at just how far that has gotten me."