Brattleboro, VT – Wells C Cunningham, Sr., 98, formerly of Guilford Street in Brattleboro, died Wednesday, January 25, 2023 at Vernon Green Nursing Home in Vernon, Vermont.
Mr. Cunningham was born in Summit, New Jersey on May 12, 1924, the son of Leon and Josephine (Wells) Cunningham. Wells was raised and educated in Mendham, New Jersey and graduated from Morristown (New Jersey) High School with the Class of 1941.
A veteran of World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in October 1942 and was stationed in the Pacific Theater of Operations during the war, serving in the Air Corps and later the infantry until his honorable discharge from active service in February 1946. Wells attended Marlboro College’s first class on the GI bill and graduated with a diploma in social and political sciences.
Wells Cunningham, a self-proclaimed “Jersey Boy,” was a true Vermonter at heart. Wells moved to Brattleboro soon after his wife Jean Marie Gallup’s death in 1977. He and Jean Marie met at the Brattleboro train station in 1946 when she accompanied a young man from Marlboro College to pick up a new student, Wells Cunningham. Soon after, Jean Marie, accepting an invitation from Wells to a dance on Potash Hill, walked six miles in snowfall from her home on Ames Hill.
Wells and Jean Marie were married at First Congregational Church in West Brattleboro before moving to Connecticut to raise a family. They both acquired master degrees and moved on in life with dual incomes that allowed them to reach their dream of owning a historic home in Newington, Connecticut. Wells initially worked for the American Heart Association in New Britain before his employment with the State of Connecticut Department of Education, working 30 years in the State’s Hartford office as a vocational counselor for veterans. With her degree from Boston College Jean Marie was initially a physical therapist and later became a special education teacher.
Wells was a non-competitive athlete and remained strong and fit throughout his life. He could often be seen in his neighborhood rollerblading and “skinny skiing.” He excelled at ice skating and tennis, and won many trophies in skeet shooting. Wells was an avid bocci player. He was an advocate for the placement of the bocci court across the street at Memorial Park, and acted as a teacher to any passersby interested in learning the sport. At the Brattleboro Tennis Club, he encouraged his grandson in his matches and kept up with his own skills at the backboards when he was in his late eighties.
Wells often reminisced about his days as a young boy growing up in New Jersey in an adult-centered home with his parents, grandparents, and a loving sister ten years his senior. He played jokes to the entertainment of everyone and supported his family during the Great Depression by doing odd jobs around town. Wells maintained clay courts at a tennis club and worked on a chicken farm, often recounting stories about the chickens running around with their heads cut off. Learning about the anatomy of chickens helped him play a trick on his mother. He attached a long thread to a piece of corn and fed it to a chicken. He then announced to his mother that he could make the chicken come to him when called. As he pulled the secret string, the chicken came forward (gagging), at his command. Mom was abashed and proud.
“Wellsy” earned a reputation with locals as an innovator and was sought after for odd jobs. He led the pack in commercial berry picking by cleverly grasping the basket between his thighs and using two hands to move more quickly than others down the rows. “Wellsy” once got himself in a pickle when he told the lady next door that he could sand floors. She left him to it with a sander twice his size. Unwilling to tell her his ruse, he developed a special floor-sander technique that impressed his benefactor so much he received double pay! Wells managed a farmer’s rooster for fights and repaired its injuries if it won. Likely because of these early years Wells had a special place in his heart for chickens. During his life as a family man and well into his early nineties Wells celebrated Easter with a couple chick eggs to raise. In a safe, quiet time when Ford cars were first seen on the streets, Wells left the house in the morning, always finding adventures to tell his folks about at home over dinner (which he, most often, provided).
In his young adult life, Wells worked many occupations while attending Marlboro College. One reminiscence was his story of his “ditch-digging” days, when he and a couple of other young bucks were fixing the roads around the Marlboro College. He also drove a laundry truck in Brattleboro and helped the old ladies who provided boarding for him at their Wilmington home, probably in exchange for their wonderful cooking, of which he often spoke. There was never a complaint from Wells regarding labor. For him, it was more about insight into lessons learned from each job…and the jokes to be had.
Wells devotedly attended the Guilford Fair first attending with his wife’s family, who were auctioneers and callers for the horse- and ox-pulling competitions. Wells never missed a local sugar-on-snow supper, ending each meal with his favorite trick. He intrigued people by quietly stirring syrup in a cup, sneaking peeks at them as if he had some secret…until they just had to ask what was he doing “Oh, you don’t know?”, he would coyly ask before proudly demonstrating the perfect technique. Soon enough, the whole joint would be intensely interested in stirring their own maple cream.
Wells constantly listened to music, often on his headphones as he worked around the yard and garden. He loved opera, classical, and old western music. He enjoyed socializing, and especially the meals at the Brattleboro Senior Center. Wells loved to eat, but never gained extra weight.
Wells had no complaints about his enlistment in the air force, and was not at all homesick as his mother had hoped. He was initially stationed on a base near his hometown. One day, while in training to be a gunner, he asked the pilot to fly over his parents’ house. There, having just left the front yard, were his mother and sister walking down the sidewalk. He waved frantically from his glass-domed gunnery, but they never knew he was in the plane because for some reason, he never told them.
Wells had high regard for his watch, as it was a good memory, but also because it was his favorite story to tell. While he was stationed in Guam, a fellow enlisted man had the innovative idea to make steel wristbands from a downed Japanese plane, Wells forever admired the man and the watch never came off his wrist until a few days before he died. Wells’ many stories about his experiences in war were good memories of adventurous times, not at all about waiting with his buddies for the invasion of Japan- that never happened.
A tribute by the person who Wells loved best, his grandson:
Wells’ experiences as a youth could be written into a memoir with more action than the latest Hollywood movies. Days spent with his childhood friend, Joe Degrassi, and his Italian-American family who offered a culinary and cultural awakening for Wells. Spice was not in Wells’ repertoire, though his grandson loved to offer up such delicacies on occasion. Never turning down a challenge, Wells would gladly accept and partake in the mouthwatering pain that would surely ensue, coughing through a big smile. Wells could be seen at the retreat meadows and ice-skating rink, the gun range, the senior center, biking, rollerblading, at many local restaurants, and especially in his flower gardens. He was known to many in town, and was a true old-world gentleman–a man from a different era who had survived WWII. He experienced the Great Depression and many other disasters but kept his light and laughter.
It’s hard to try and fit the last twenty-eight years of our memories together in a paragraph, but the message at the end is conveyed. Wells was renowned, and will not be forgotten by those he encountered. His neighbors looked out for him as he aged, and his daughter and grandson took care of him in his waning years. He helped raise me and was always kind, gentle, and patient. A wise old wizard with techniques from the old world, he could fix a vacuum, a mower, or any other piece of necessary equipment. Wells was a man who was truly self-sufficient, yet enjoyed the company of anyone without distinction or prejudice. He was a role model not only to me, but also to my friends, who thought he was an amazing man, a true inspiration in the ways of aging gracefully while continuing to pursue passions no matter the cost. He will be greatly missed by all, and his memory will continue on for generations to come.
In keeping with his final wishes, no formal services are scheduled. Wells will be laid to rest in the family lot in Christ Church Cemetery in the Algiers section of Guilford. Friends are welcome to plant a flower for his remembrance in their garden or at his stone under the lilac bush.
For Wells himself, he would want his favorite Robert Frost poem to be shared.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
To send flowers to the family of Wells, please visit our floral store.