John Cunningham was much more than a gymnastics coach for the young ladies whose lives he enriched for the past five-plus decades.
Cunningham was a life coach and his daily lesson plan was: Seize the day.
A longtime life-enhancer who had retired from teaching literature and other subjects at Canton High School, but continued as head coach of the gymnastics team, Cunningham passed away Saturday from the effects of a stroke.
His unexpected passing ignited a flood of touching tributes — on social media and elsewhere — from those who knew him well or just in passing.
‘He was an inspiration’
“He always pushed me to be better, believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself, and taught me so much through all of his many stories and facts,” former Canton gymnast Lauren Hendricks posted on Cunningham’s Facebook page.
“He was an inspiration to all and I will never forget the many memories I have of him!”
Married to Sally for 55 years and father to three sons — Adam, Eric and Ryan — Cunningham treated all of the athletes he coached equally, many of his former gymnasts said.
“As a freshman (in 2012) who had no gymnastics experience … I just remember him welcoming me with open arms and coaching me into the person he knew I was before I even knew myself,” Alexis Panizzoli shared with SocialHouseNews.com.
“Through all my injuries I was still consistently given opportunities and hundreds of hugs through all the frustrations and he always brightened my mood with his legendary ‘Fred/Velma’ nicknames. The team won a state championship title in 2014 and I haven’t seen a man so proud, and I will forever cherish that moment.
“Coach made sure ALL of us were proud, not just the select ‘team’ chosen to compete.”
Panizzoli said Cunningham, a graduate of the University of Michigan, was a fun-loving person who enjoyed a good-natured prank.
“I remember the days when — the jokesters that we were — our team sleepovers turned into us putting ovens, chairs, forks, random junk items we found on the side of the road, all over his front lawn … even if that meant we went back to clean it up in the morning and see him laughing the following week when we went back to practice,” Panizzoli said.
A man of diverse talents,
Cunningham worked as a roofing and aluminum siding contractor to supplement his early-teaching-days income.
Nichelle Grisamer, who was an assistant coach with Cunningham for three seasons of his illustrious career, said he was a joy to be around.
“John loved everybody,” said Grisamer. “He had an amazing way of looking at life — always positive, always encouraging.”
Grisamer said Cunningham thought of innovative ways to get the most out of his athletes.
“John would bring judges into his practices to help critique his gymnasts,” she said. “That way, the girls would know exactly what they needed to do to get the best scores.”
As a sportswriter who covered Canton gymnastics for close to eight years, my favorite memory of Cunningham was the day I stopped by practice to put together a season preview on his team.
Searching for a compelling photo to run with the preview for the 2010-11 season, Cunningham obliged by hanging upside down — held aloft by his knees that were bent over the uneven bars — side-by-side next to one of his gymnasts.
And, as always, he was wearing an ear-to-ear smile — John Cunningham’s unofficial trademark.
Sally Cunningham posted on Facebook that a service celebrating her late husband’s amazing life would be scheduled most likely for the spring of 2024.
Ed Wright can be reached at 734-664-4657 or firstname.lastname@example.org.