On Feb. 2, I received news that my dear friend, confidant and tireless leader for Ohio State’s unsung heroes recently passed. Many others in the university community knew Dr. Patricia Cunningham II even better than me, but large sums of Buckeyes from today and yesteryear know of Patty’s work. Although she was always a force for change and justice, the Springfield, Ohio, native witnessed her long-held visions for what “education for citizenship” really means be realized when the Social Change program was recently established in the Office of Student Life with the support of Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston. With Dr. J’s support and President Michael Drake’s focus on a more civically engaged university, Dr. Patty was able to build OSU’s program into an ever-improving national model for social change programming and student development.
The impacts of Dr. Patty’s work on the campus community, University District, countless communities across Ohio and the nation, is not only notable, it is admirable. In fact, several of us at at Eastern Kentucky University were recently discussing the idea of bringing Patty to our campus to give a Chautauqua lecture and program on student engagement, justice, girl power and women in science.
Beyond Patty’s time leading such initiatives at OSU, her work was most importantly influenced by the people she touched with her colorfully blunt approach. Through her most trying times with her health, she continued to be a mentor to countless young men and women of all backgrounds. Dr. Patty was like a big sister to me and was there for me during my time as a graduate student wrestling with the challenges of leading an organization while battling cancer with the help of The James. Nobody understood my situation while at OSU better than Dr. Patty. She was truly my big sister in this world, and she likely was that for hundreds, if not thousands, of OSU students.
For the nationally renowned Todd A. Bell National Resource Center at OSU, Dr. Patty was a mentor for countless young, black, male students who in many cases needed someone a little older and wiser who was like family, who could give tough love, and who helped them understand how to navigate the more than 62,000 student campus without giving up their identity. As a graduate student, Dr. Patty was a mentor and adviser to many, including the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, a brotherhood founded to provide opportunities for Jewish men.
Patty gave people hope. Patty gave young folks inspiration. Patty observed in people what nobody else could see. No matter if she was working in downtown Columbus, or Youngstown or in the hills and hollers of Appalachia in Vinton County, Patty listened to people. Patty cared about people and she would reignite visions for people’s lives that may have vanished in their childhood years. Patty most importantly went to those blessed by circumstance to be the leaders of our university — student leaders, faculty leaders, staff leaders, trustees, vice presidents, university presidents and many more. She routinely challenged these leaders in an unvarnished but still classy fashion to think about how their actions in life impact or may impact others — especially those sometimes lacking a voice. Patty was the voice for students lacking collective voice and sometimes not part of prestigious campus organizations. Patty taught her students how to have a voice and how they ought to give others a voice.
No matter when or where I was around Patty, countless young men and women of all ages, positions, or conditions, would be sure to come by and say hello or often “thank you.” Any evening at Mad Mex, in the Gateway, when she might be there, folks would be coming in off High Street just to drop in and say hello. Everywhere — the Ohio Union, the Hale Center, the Oval — everyone seemed to know Patty.
When people would openly say “thank you” to Patty years before her illness, I never knew exactly what they were thanking her for at any moment, but I had a suspicion that the “thank you” was likely related to how Patty ultimately gave them a purpose in this world by lighting a fire in them where the fuel for good existed.
Despite all the positive action on society’s most challenging issues, Patty always knew how to temper the seriousness of her daily work with a great time — with sock puppets, poetry, dance, karaoke or just a great party. Patty led our Council of Graduate Students’ social planning and events for years and much of our success at that time in the mid-to-late 2000s was because we were a large group of students who could have a good time over food and drink. Patty was all about connecting folks together. She understood the power of the person is enhanced by the power of people. As a personal note from my heart, the OSU community, Ohio, the nation and the world recently lost this true force for good and this fierce advocate for social justice with the passing of the original PhDiva, Dr. Patty Jr. I am, and forever will be, grateful for the light of Dr. Patty Cunningham that still shines on in this world, in the way a beautiful candle can flicker out only after lighting tens of thousands of other scarlet and gray candles, all burning brightly with hope and love.
Ultimately, I know I have been changed, and the Angels in heaven gonna have a “soiree.” Patty will be missed, but her work must march on.
How firm thy friendship,
Ohio State ’10, ’11
Associate professor, Eastern Kentucky University