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To the hundreds of Harvard students who stop by Dillon Field House each year on their way to a house game, Jimmy Cunniff was nothing more than a pleasant face looking out from the other side of the equipment room. But to those Harvard athletes who came to know him well, he was nothing less than the greatest person they had ever met.
The beauty of Jimmy Cunniff was that he saw the good in each person whom he came in contact with, and that everybody, from the goalie of the Lowell House hockey team to the varsity's star running back, was equal. And he treated each one as if he were a member of his own family.
Last Sunday Jimmy Cunniff died in Stillman Infirmary at the age of forty-six. He had been working for Harvard for 29 years, and had been head of the equipment room since 1962.
When the funeral services were held on Wednesday at St. Paul's Church, across from Adams House, over 400 people gathered from all over the country. "Everyone who was there felt like a heel," senior Vince McGugan said. "He had spent his life giving, and he never took anything in return, except friendship. No one felt that they had measured up to this man."
In addition to providing everything that an athlete could possibly want in the way of equipment, Jimmy was a friend who was always there when someone had a problem. "He used to do things in his own quiet way," hockey coach Bill Cleary said. "He never talked about what he was doing for people, and when they came to thank him, he would turn away without acknowledging the good he had done."
Whatever Jimmy had was at the disposal of anyone who needed it, and most of the time you didn't have to ask--he could tell when you had a problem, and he usually found a way to solve it.
When you were short of money, Jimmy was there to make a loan, and when you needed transportation, he would toss you the keys to his own car. But he will be remembered most for his peace-making and his gentle advice. He didn't always have the answers, but he knew how to put things into a more optimistic perspective.
Jimmy took tremendous pleasure in seeing other people enjoy themselves, and he was always taking the boys who worked with him in the equipment room out to dinner. He often went drinking with the players, and when the check came around, he always insisted on paying--"It's just my way of repaying all the people who have helped me," he would say.
To a certain extent, Jimmy was carrying on a tradition that he learned from Kerrey Corner, a small neighborhood between Harvard Square and Central Square where he grew up. Almost all the people who lived there had immigrated from Kerrey County in Ireland, and when Jimmy's father died, the neighbors helped Mrs. Cunniff raise her five children.
Jimmy never married, and he lived with his three sisters in the house on Bank Street where he was born.
Jimmy was first hired by the Harvard Athletic Association when he was 17, but he had already been hanging around Harvard teams for years. When he was younger, gate attendants would let him into the football games for free, and when he was 16 he was manager and mascot of the baseball team.
Cunniff remembered his childhood by doing favors for the kids in his neighborhood. He had a "personal payroll" for boys who wanted to carry equipment out to the playing fields, and at every football game he had 12 of them along as guests. Afterwards, he would introduce them to the players, and then quietly slip away.
Jimmy Cunniff's life was centered around Harvard, and his goal was to make Harvard athletics run as smoothly as possible. On the night before a home game, he was always on the job until nine or ten at night, and instead of travelling with the team for away games, he would arrive with the equipment truck the night before to make sure that nothing went wrong.
And yet he always considered himself the least important person involved. "I don't ever want to fill a place that could be taken by a player." Jimmy would say, and whenever a Harvard team flew out to a national tournament, he would always pay his own way.
Jimmy was a great believer in the ideal of the student-athlete, and while he devoted all of his energies to sports, he considered a player's studies to be more important. His greatest pride came in following the careers of his boys after they had graduated.
The people who knew him appreciated this concern more than anything else, and almost everybody who spent any amount of time down at Dillon invited Jimmy to his wedding. Every June there were usually a couple of days when he had two or three invitations.
One recent example of his loyalty stands out. When the hockey team went out to St. Louis over Christmas, Jimmy heard that Bill Grant, a former football captain, was over in Vietnam as a doctor. Without telling anyone, he rented a car, and visited Grant's wife and children. "I wouldn't have felt right without letting them know that I was thinking about Bill and what they were going through," he said.
One of Jimmy's greatest admirers was Jack Fadden, a former trainer for the Boston Red Sox who has been working with Harvard for many years. "Jimmy is one of the last of a dying breed of men who truly loved Harvard," Fadden said. "Back in the days when the Athletic Association ran the entire sports program, the administrators and the workmen all knew each other, and they were working towards a common goal, President Lowell would come down almost every day to watch the team practice. He knew all the workmen, and would often talk with them about the players."
"When something came up, everyone worked overtime to get the job done. Working for Harvard athletics was more like belonging to a family. I guess things have just gotten too big around here for that type of relationship, but Jimmy kept the tradition alive," Fadden said.
Jimmy Cunniff's greatness was illsuited for this age. He did nothing that made front page news, and he wouldn't have done well on a TV talk show. As a result, thousands of people in the Harvard community never heard of him. And yet, more than anyone else, he personified the Christian tradition on which this university was founded.
"You had to identify with what this man was trying to do." McGugan said, "and he left behind an ideal." That ideal was simplicity and innocence, and all the traits that come from it like honesty, integrity and generosity.
"He was humble, and he put everyone else before himself." McGugan said. "And though he didn't know it, he embodied everything that he wanted the Harvard man to be."
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