Joseph Cunningham

On this date in 1926, freethinking educator and military “foxhole atheist” Joseph Cunningham was born into a religious and financially struggling family near Wadestown, W. Va. (population 50). The family of eight moved to Oklahoma, then to Michigan, where they lived in an abandoned rural grocery store, and then to Illinois, where Cunningham graduated from high school in Carmi.

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving in the Pacific aboard the attack transport USS Bosque. After World War II he received $65 a month from the G.I. Bill to attend Southern Illinois University, where he graduated with a major in history and minors in English and business.

He taught for two years in a one-room school without electricity. After earning his master’s from SIU he taught a wide variety of subjects at Mascoutah High School, where he met his future wife Norma Steines Cunningham, also a teacher and religious skeptic. They married in 1953 and had two daughters, Kathryn and Linda, who were raised in a secular environment. The Cunninghams were married for 64 years until her death in 2018 at age 100.

Cunningham served on FFRF’s executive board of directors for 38 years. As a veteran, he was also very involved with bringing FFRF’s Atheists in Foxholes monument to fruition in Madison, Wis.
Another project he took up after retirement was the planting of thousands of daffodils along Illinois Route 4. And since they are perennials, the thousands have turned into millions. He was honored nationally on Earth Day in 2015 for his green thumb and by the city of Mascoutah and the Federated Garden Clubs of Missouri and Illinois.

“Oh that I could have become a freethinker earlier in life,” Cunningham said in a 2019 email. “I spent many a sleepless night thinking the world would end at any second and that possibly I would end up in a never-ending, burning hell because I had accidentally done something that an angry god disapproved.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation