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Life of a small-town sheriff could be life-and-death situation

Posted on Thursday, July 2, 2020 at 12:30 pm

By Dick Trust

Special to The News


When Yolanda Clark thinks of her late father, Ron Cunningham, the word “hero” jumps out front and center.

“I always thought he was immortal,” Clark said of Cunningham, the 6-foot-tall sheriff of Moore County from 1976 to 1982. “I thought, ‘Nothing can happen to my dad.’ My dad was a great man. I saw him as bigger than he was, physically. I just saw him as a big hero.”

As the fifth anniversary of Cunningham’s passing approaches – he died July 9, 2015, at age 69 – we are reminded that our birth certificates do not include a forever clause. But it surely seemed to his youngest daughter that Ron Cunningham might be the exception. Working in a field fraught with danger daily, Cunningham wiggled out of life-and-death scenarios often enough to allow Yolanda to dream big.

The most serious threat that Cunningham faced was, obviously, when a contract was put out on his life after uncovering an interstate theft ring during his service as the county sheriff. That also put his first wife and three young daughters in the crosshairs of danger.

“I remember we used to ride in the sheriff’s car with my dad,” said Yolanda, who lives in Tullahoma with her two children. “One day we were riding around town and he had gotten a domestic call, and my sisters (Shannon and Leah) and I were in the back, riding with him. Only it wasn’t a domestic call. It was a setup. The men who were trying to kill my dad were stalking us and they blocked us on the road. They put 20-plus bullets in the car, and I remember my dad saying, ‘Get down, get down!’

“We were fine, but there were a lot of incidents like that. That’s why I thought of my dad as a hero and as immortal. He was always involved in something dangerous and he always came through it.”

When he was sheriff, Cunningham and his family lived in one-half of the Lynchburg building that housed the jail on the other half. Today, that two-story, red-brick structure is the Lynchburg/Moore County Old Jail Museum. Bobby Fuller, one of Ron’s deputies, is the museum’s curator. At the time the “hit” was still on, someone tried to burn down the jail/home duplex.

“I had a giant Mickey Mouse coloring book and I was lying on my belly, coloring, and the floor was warm and I was getting hot,” Leah Skelton, Cunningham’s middle daughter, recalled recently. “My mom was out getting a pizza, so I went next door to my dad’s dispatch office and told him what was happening. His deputy and ambulance drivers were in the office, too. They were patronizing me; I was told to go back and color.”

It got worse, Leah said, and she marched right back to her dad’s office and announced, “The floor is getting warmer and my crayons are melting.” Next, she recalled, “Someone came over – I don’t remember who – bent down and touched the floor. They all went flying about and we had to all get out. My mom pulled up with the pizza amid all the chaos. It turned out that someone had thrown something under the jail, like in a crawl space.”

The building, and all of those in it, survived the flames. Cunningham survived all attempts on his life, and those responsible were imprisoned. But years later, whenever he’d see one of his would-be killers on the outside after their release, the former sheriff would extend a hand in a friendly wave of hello.

“That’s just part of who he was,” daughter Leah reflected. “He’d say, ‘Everyone deserves a second chance.’ He never held grudges.”

After his stint as sheriff, in time he became Captain of Detectives in the Tullahoma Police Department. He was a security guard at Harton Regional Medical Center when he died.

“Ron was well liked,” said Linda Hudson, Cunningham’s third wife, to whom he was married from Dec. 17, 1996, until his death. “Especially with so much negativity about policemen, Ron was an example of policing at its best. Many people he had arrested and sent to jail came to tell me at his funeral how Ron had treated them with respect or helped them. I thought it odd he had so much respect among the ‘criminals.’”

While law enforcement has its heady, heavy side, there was a lighter side to Mr. Cunningham. He was a “jokester,” his daughters agree. One of his favorite pranks back in the Seventies was to put one handcuff on one of Leah’s ankles and the other cuff on one of Shannon’s and, as if in a three-legged race, he’d send them off to the now long-gone five-and-dime store in Lynchburg. The girls would laugh and giggle all the way and the locals watching ’em would be thoroughly entertained.

Ron’s girls were inventive jokesters in their own right. Said Yolanda, “When we lived (at the jailhouse), there was a little hole in the floor of our bedroom upstairs and my dad and his deputies were downstairs. We used to stick a water gun down the hole and squirt the deputies. They never knew where it was coming from. One time we got bored with the water gun. We put a stick down the hole and bopped one of the men on the head. They looked up and finally caught us. We figured we were in trouble.”

But they were just little girls then, the apples of their father’s eye, so even though they did the crime, they didn’t have to do the time.