Ingersoll “Sandy” Cunningham has the dignified, silver-haired appearance of a man you’d expect to find sipping iced tea at the country club. So what is this Harvard-educated great-grandfather doing pushing food carts through the hallways of Dana-Farber, handing out sandwiches to patients?
“You’ve got to have some objective when you get up in the morning, a purpose and a place to be,” says Cunningham, 91, a retired investment advisor, and for the last 16 years, a weekly volunteer at Dana-Farber. “This is mine. I used to take care of people and their money; now I take care of people facing cancer.”
Possessing a warm smile and gentle, mischievous manner, Cunningham knows just how to put patients at ease. He loves making them laugh, whether by singing “going to get the Mayonnaise” while searching his cart for condiments or by donning a tuxedo, top hat, and red clown nose during his shift, as he did for years on Valentine’s Day.
Most importantly, he understands just what patients and families are going through – because he’s been there himself.
His wife of more than 56 years, Sheila, died of cancer. So did one of her brothers, two of her sisters-in-law, and Sandy’s own two brothers. Sandy had prostate cancer, and, like Sheila, was treated at Dana-Farber. Their youngest daughter, Jen Cunningham Butler, was also a patient here and is now 10 years cancer free.
Sandy knows the drill.
“These patients often have a long drive in, and then need to give blood, meet with their doctor, and get a chemotherapy infusion,” Cunningham explains. “They welcome the chance to talk, and I get – and learn – so much from them.”
Approaching patients at their infusion chairs, Cunningham’s eyes sparkle and his voice rises with enthusiasm as he rattles off his menu of offerings. Then, after delivering their tuna on wheat or bag of chocolate chip cookies, he chats with them about their lives outside Dana-Farber.
“He’s a character, so friendly and cute,” says Debbie Graff, a multiple myeloma patient. “Because of his own experience, he brings a lot of credibility to his job.”
Manager of Volunteer Programs and Services Patricia Stahl, M.Ed, adds that “Sandy is full of a joy for life that’s evident the second you lay eyes on him. He adds courage, humor, and kindness to each sandwich he serves.”
Asked about the prime motivations for his volunteerism, Cunningham cites two: his late wife and his father.
“Sheila was the greatest human being I’ve ever met, and I’ve known some real Cracker-Jacks,” Cunningham says in his trademark folksy style. A founding member and the first president of the Friends of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, an all-volunteer giving organization that has allocated more than $25 million to cancer research, care, and support programs here, Sheila Cunningham devoted her life to helping others in addition to raising their five children. Daughter Jen is currently co-president of the Friends.
Sandy’s father, John H. Cunningham, MD, was a surgeon who let his son follow him on his rounds as a young boy. Although the family lived comfortably, Dr. Cunningham reminded his children that “everybody pulls the oar.” This included a stint for Sandy in the Navy during World War II, which interrupted his years at Harvard.
“We were damn lucky, and he never let us forget it. He expected us to always make time for others. There is never a day when somebody doesn’t say, ‘I am so thankful for what you do for us,’” says Cunningham. “As a volunteer, that’s our payment.”
That is why, retired after more than 40 years with Bank of Boston, and married to his and Sheila’s dear friend, Joanna, Sandy keeps pulling the oar.