Norma Cunningham

On this date in 1917, Norma Ella Cunningham (née Steines), educator and freethought advocate, was born in St. Louis, where she attended Lutheran elementary school. She was valedictorian of the 1935 graduating class of Cleveland High School and was awarded a full-tuition scholarship to Washington University, where she earned a B.A. in 1939 and an M.A. in 1940. 

She taught in the St. Louis area for four years before moving in 1944 to Mascoutah, Ill., where she taught high school German, Latin and English and headed the fine arts department. She taught there for 31 years before retiring. In 1953 she married Joseph Cunningham, who taught business and other classes at Mascoutah High. They were married for 64 years until her death in 2018. Their daughters are Kathryn and Linda.

In a 1998 column in Freethought Today, Cunningham told about her “parochial brainwashing” as a Lutheran elementary school student and how after college she started “intensive Bible study and the application of reason to matters of religion. I was fast becoming an agnostic. Not much later the study of philosophy and the sciences put ‘finis’ even to my agnosticism and brought about a metamorphosis to atheism.”

Cunningham joined FFRF in 1981 and served for many years on its executive board of directors after being named one of its first members. She and her husband were avid travelers, visiting all 50 states and Canada, the Caribbean, most of Europe, Russia, China and Japan.  She died at age 100 at an assisted living facility in April 2018 but was mentally sharp even as her health declined and correctly answered all five “Final Jeopardy” questions one week a few months before she died.

In her 1998 Freethought Today column, Cunningham wrote, “As children we were like the persons referred to by [Scottish poet] William Drummond: ‘He who will not reason is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who dares not, is a slave.’ Thank Ingersoll I was liberated!”

Photo: Norma Cunningham on her wedding day on Dec. 23, 1953.

Freedom From Religion Foundation