words: Marla Cantrell
images: courtesy Jerry Glidewell and Laura England-Cunningham
It is a brilliant September afternoon in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Already, a few leaves on a nearby maple tree have turned an orangey-red, and the air, cooler these last few days, holds a tiny bit of autumn. At the dining table in Tommy Cunningham’s house, there are stacks of notes about the upcoming fundraiser for T.J.’s Guitar and Music Program, which gives musical instruments to winners of an essay contest, and music lessons to local children through the Fort Smith Boys and Girls Club.
Beside Tommy sits Kim Bercher, who’s co-chairing the event, and next to him, Jerry Glidewell, the director of the Boys and Girls Club, which has four locations. Each of the men is excited to be part of something that does so much good.
The fundraiser, called the Annual T.J. “Peaches” Cunningham Memorial, takes place on November 4. Some of the best groups in our area—The Rain Kings, and the Dodging Bullets All-Star Band—will play at the Fianna Hills Country Club. The country club’s chef, James Thomas, will be serving everything from hors d’oeuvres to a martini bar to desserts, and there will be door prizes and a silent auction.
Tommy is describing the lineup, exploring the considerable merits of the musicians who make up the bands. His son, John, will perform, along with Greg Cook, Kaelin Pratt, Rick Tinder, Ricky Young, Mark Albertson, Tom Ware, Rick Boyette, Larry Mathews, and Larry Pearson.
When Tommy finishes his descriptions, both Kim and Jerry are smiling. Talk turns to the wide-reaching effects of music, and Jerry, who’s an award-winning songwriter, says, “Music is God’s medicine.”
“He nailed it,” Tommy says. To his right is his office, a room decorated entirely of guitars he’s collected over the years. Tommy first played guitar with his older brother, Johnny, when Tommy was fourteen or fifteen. When he was in his thirties, he helped found the local group, Mr. Cabbagehead and the Screaming Radishes, and played with them until he retired in 2010.
Since music was a big part of his life, it became a big part of his kids’ lives as well. He remembers practicing with Cabbagehead, his oldest son T.J. so small he stood between his father’s legs while he played guitar. T.J. would grow up to play guitar as well.
As T.J., whom they affectionately called Peaches, grew up, he gathered a legion of friends. Tommy says, “T.J. was a fun-loving kid. Liked to play music, liked to joke around a lot. His life went pretty quick. Twenty-seven years and he was gone.”
T.J.’s life ended on July 10, 2009, the result of a car accident. Tommy rubs his shoulder as he talks about that night. Losing his son brought the greatest sorrow of his lifetime. “It was just as bad for his mother, Laura,” Tommy says. (The two were no longer married, but remain good friends.) “We didn’t know what to do. At his funeral at St. John’s about 500 people showed up. My younger son, John, is a piano player, and he played “No Tears in Heaven.” I don’t know how we did it. I cried all day. I couldn’t have done it.
“But a month later, we held the first concert, and a lot of T.J.’s friends played. We just wanted to make something good out of this.”
It’s hard to imagine the fortitude it took to pull together that first fundraiser. The shining light was the local musicians who showed up, playing their hearts out, doing what they could to honor T.J.
When the night was over, the grief, of course, was still there. But Tommy knew donating the $1,500 they’d raised would bring some solace. He met with Jerry at the Boys and Girls Club. The two men talked about T.J., who’d been a member of the Jeffrey Club, playing basketball and baseball there. Jerry mentioned how Tommy, as a member of the Cabbageheads, had come to play for the kids, and how much they’d loved it. Before Tommy left that day, he knew what he’d do. He’d buy two guitars to donate and write a check to the club for the remainder of the money.
Every year since, Tommy has spearheaded the fundraisers in his son’s name. And each year they’ve continued to donate guitars as a part of the process. Tommy, T.J.’s mom Laura, and T.J.’s siblings participate, the family united by their love of this young man gone too soon.
Last year, when the donation neared $8,000, they also gave away a keyboard. Winners of the instruments have to write an essay and get a recommendation letter. The money raised also helps provide guitar and piano lessons. Soon, club members will be able to take songwriting classes as well.
But back to the club member whose essay earned him a new keyboard. His name is Salvador Posada, and when the keyboard was turned on its end, it was taller than he was. “He flew out of the stands when we called his name,” Tommy says and laughs.
“Salvador had been taking lessons at Stephens Boys Club and has a natural knack for playing the piano. His teacher was amazed by his attitude,” Jerry says. “Most people know the Boys and Girls Club for our sports programs, after-school programs, and our summer programs. I love that we also have music. Music can enrich the lives of these kids through the creative process.”
Kim, who was in the Northside High School marching and concert bands, and had a garage band called The Checkmates, says, “Once you learn an instrument, no one can ever take that away from you. Salvador will never forget winning that keyboard, and he’ll never forget the lessons he’s learned.”
“Music allows you to meet people you might never otherwise know,” Jerry says. “I’d guess Tommy has met a thousand people, at least, in the years he’s played guitar.”
“I’ve had young men come up to me who tell me, ‘I used to hear you at Riverfest; I grew up on your music.’ That makes you feel pretty good,” Tommy says.
The talk turns again to T.J., whose full name is William Earl Thomas Jasper Cunningham. It was a big name to carry, full of weight and promise. When T.J. died so young, the shock of it reverberated through Tommy, shaking him so badly he had trouble moving through the day.
At the funeral of T.J.’s grandfather a couple of years ago, all the grandkids gathered to have their photo taken. Tommy counted the heads, and he said, “We’re one short. Somebody’s missing.” And then he realized the missing grandkid was T.J. When this story is finished, Tommy raps his fingers on the kitchen table, the subject closed.
The sorrow from the loss of a child is eternal. It invades every part of a parent’s life. But Tommy doesn’t dwell in that lonely place. Instead, he spends his time remembering the joy T.J. brought, and doing what he can to bring happiness to local kids whose lives are just beginning.
T.J. “Peaches” Cunningham Memorial
Food, Live Music, Door Prizes, Auction
Fianna Hills Country Club | 479.646.7861
6:30-11pm | $40
The Fort Smith Boys and Girls Club is looking for used musical instruments to expand their music program. If you can help, call 479.782.7093. They’ll even pick them up!