By Dick Trust
Special to The News
It was a hot summer day in the square outside the Jack Daniel Distillery, a blue, nearly cloudless sky above, dusty footing below. It was the day I met Ron Cunningham, the sheriff of Moore County.
I had come to Lynchburg with the express purpose of touring the distillery. Whiskey is not one of my passions, but the Jack Daniel’s label is such an icon, I felt a need to visit. On that morning in late June of 1978, my curiosity running rampant but the heat in the air suddenly draining my desire to go on a tour, I stood outside my rental car and pondered my decision: Take the tour or not take the tour. I was beginning to feel a bit listless but thinking I shouldn’t miss this.
In mid-ponder, I turned to the sound of another car pulling up behind me. It was the sheriff’s car. Out walked a man of substantial build and confident stride, in a uniform that included khaki shirt with a gold badge that glistened in the unrelenting sun.
Little did I know that this was a day that would inspire me, 42 years later, to write of precious moments that I frequently recalled but never had committed to print.
“I’m Sheriff Ron Cunningham,” he said. “Can I help you with something?”
I explained that I was a sports writer from a daily newspaper in Quincy, Massachusetts, who just days earlier had completed my coverage of a Bay State girls basketball team playing in an AAU Junior Olympic tournament hosted by Motlow State Community College.
I had come to Lynchburg, I told him, with the hope of touring the distillery but now it might be too hot to do so.
“How’d you like to see the jail?” the sheriff asked.
“Excuse me?” I said, wondering if I had done, or said, something wrong and was about to cool off behind bars.
“The jail,” he said, pointing to a two-story, red-brick building across the square. “I live on one side of the house with my wife and three daughters. The jail is on the other side. As a writer, you might find it interesting.”
It did intrigue me. “OK,” I said. We got into the sheriff’s car and he drove across the square to the house/jail complex. Inside, Sheriff Cunningham introduced me to his wife, Linda, who offered me a cold drink. Their energetic daughters – Shannon, Leah, and Yolanda – were busy with toys and a coloring book. The sheriff led me to the business half of the building, the jail. That afternoon no inmates were in any of the cells, some double-bunked, with a total of 16 beds between the first floor (for female scofflaws) and those upstairs (for men). The cells were tiny enclosures, with just enough space to hold a flimsy mattress, a sink, and a commode.
Theft, drugs, family fights, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and the like would render an invitation to incarceration. The sheriffs’ wives traditionally prepared meals not only for their families but for those locked up. Linda Cunningham was especially revered for her lasagna. Truth be told, when word got out that that delectable Italian dish was on the menu, some unfortunates hard up for such a plate might intentionally drink to excess, and act out, in order to receive a fine meal. Arrest me, please, so that I may partake. Accommodations at the Moore County jail were far from 5-star, but the dinner fare would often rate rave reviews.
After the jail tour, Sheriff Cunningham asked Mrs. Cunningham if she would like to play the piano and sing some songs “for our guest.” She would, and she did. Her set list consisted of gospel songs, true to the church-going values of Ron and Linda. Her vocal skill and proficiency at the piano prompted rave reviews from this music critic.
The sheriff announced that he had to deliver some official papers to a woman elsewhere in Moore County; would I like to go for the ride? I would, and I did. It was a hilly, up-and-down, whipping-around-sharp-corners kind of ride, and it felt like Ron Cunningham was driving 80 or 90 miles an hour, even on the sharp turns. He liked to drive fast. But he did it safely.
Ronald Reagan Cunningham was 33 years old when we met, 69 when on a night in July 2015 he went to bed and never woke up. Family, friends, the county, they all grieved for a man whom his daughter, Leah, now 48, said had “a big heart.” He had loved his job, even when a criminal element put a contract out on his life. He was Moore County sheriff from 1976 to 1982, first serving a two-year term and then four years when that became the term limit. A U.S. Navy veteran thrice married, he also served as Captain of Detectives in the Tullahoma Police Department, and was a security guard for a medical center at the time of his passing.
Cunningham’s old home/jail on the square is now the Lynchburg/Moore County Old Jail Museum. The new jail is nearby, and the sheriff’s home is separate from the lockup. Sheriffs’ spouses no longer cook for inmates,
I never did tour the distillery. That’s OK. But I did get to tour a jail, hear a Tennessee woman sing and play for a stranger from Massachusetts, and enjoy the company of a man of substance who, although I spent only a few hours of one day in my entire life with him, inspired me to write about him 42 years later. I suspect Ron Cunningham is looking down, likely with suggestions to resolve what’s tearing our country apart right now. He was a man I admired, but he never knew that.