Joseph John Cunningham, emeritus professor of human and organizational development and special education, has died

Joseph J. Cunningham

Joseph Cunningham, 82, passed away peacefully on March 8, 2024, at his home in Lake City, Pennsylvania.

Cunningham was an accomplished administrator and professor at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development.

Upon moving to Nashville in 1969, Cunningham joined the Peabody College faculty as an assistant professor, even before completing his education doctorate in special education in 1975 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1970, he developed and directed Peabody’s interdisciplinary undergraduate major in human behavior, a precursor to the human and organizational development undergraduate program.

Cunningham served Peabody College as an associate dean in many capacities, including for academic affairs and administration and as an interim dean. His administrative service spanned years of significant challenge and opportunity for post-merger Peabody as it became Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development. During his last decade at Vanderbilt University, Cunningham chaired the Department of Human and Organizational Development, guiding it to become one of Vanderbilt’s largest and most successful academic units.

“Joe was a visionary leader and scholar, and he was an equally compassionate friend and colleague to everyone at Peabody. From his early days as an assistant professor of special education to his steadfast service as associate dean, interim dean, and chair of the Department of Human and Organizational Development, Joe led with purpose and good humor. We will miss him dearly and remember him fondly,” said Camilla Benbow, Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development.

During his early years in Nashville, Cunningham was known for his devotion to helping desegregate the Metro Nashville Public Schools system. He provided the community with a wealth of resources, acting as a consultant for multiple school districts, special education and rehabilitation centers, and as a member of advisory committees for programs serving families and children.

Cunningham was born to Elsie and Jack Cunningham in Chicago, Illinois, on December 27, 1941. He moved with his family to Syracuse, New York, and graduated from Jamesville Dewitt (JD) High School. He then went to Syracuse University, where he earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in education.

Throughout his life, Cunningham enjoyed traveling the world, but his favorite hobby involved being on the water, relishing his love of sailing. He retired to Lake City, Pennsylvania, in 2012, where he enjoyed sailing most days on Lake Erie. During his final year, he enjoyed spending time at his home admiring Lake Erie’s beautiful sunsets and wildlife.

Joseph Cunningham

Cunningham is survived by his wife, Susan Cunningham; his children Dena (Peter) Youtt of Frisco, Texas; Erin Cunningham of Nashville, Tennessee; and Chris (Samantha) Cunningham of Franklin, Tennessee; grandchildren Emma (Jeff) Houser, George (Reagan) Youtt, Henry Youtt, Caden Cunningham; and one great-grandchild, Leighton Houser.

The family will hold a private celebration of life in April. Donations in Cunningham’s memory can be given to Second Harvest Food Bank in Nashville, Tennessee, Emmaus Ministries Soup Kitchen in Erie, Pennsylvania, or a local United Way branch.