HOWLAND — The person who is most surprised at the number of service organizations where Fran Cunningham has served is Cunningham himself. Last week, when she looked back at papers from more than 60 years of volunteering, her eyes widened.
“I couldn’t believe the things I was doing,” she said.
She giggled a little when she came across a newspaper photo of herself serving as president of the Warren-residential Cancer Crusade with band director Lawrence Welk, who was the National Crusade President for the American Cancer Society in 1968.
“Isn’t that something?” she said.
At 86, Cunningham is still doing well – both as a volunteer and as an active real estate agent.
“I tell people I’m 68 – the numbers reversed. God has been good to me,” she said. “I’m still in very good health and still have all my marbles, and I’m still working Not many people still work at my age.”
For a few years she sold houses with her daughter, Jill, now from Virginia.
“(For starters), she said, ‘Mom, when I’m in it for 30 years, I’m going to retire,'” Cunningham recalls. “Just before retiring, she sold a $945,000 home. I thought she would change her mind, but she didn’t. She retired. I’m still here.”
Her decades of volunteer service includes serving as board chairman of the Beta Sigma Phi Sorority in 1958; the board of directors of the Pediatric Rehabilitation Hospital from 1962 to 1972; a founder of the Warren Junior Women’s League in 1966 and its president for its first two years; and a member of the St. Joseph Warren Hospital Auxiliary since 1970, as well as a member of the hospital’s board of trustees and the Foundation Council. (“I was the first woman on the Foundation Board, except for the sisters.”)
She has chaired several committees and efforts of the American Cancer Society, the United Way, SCOPE, Family Services, and the Warren Area of Chamber of Commerce. The full list of service groups and titles is about four typed pages.
“I don’t know why I wanted to volunteer all the time,” Cunningham said. “I thoroughly enjoyed it. I like doing things like that to help people. We used to sell jelly beans for the Children’s Rehab Center (in Beta Sigma Phi). They (the center) still sell jelly beans.”
Cunningham was born and raised in Warren.
“When I was in high school, I sold football programs. We sold pillows. Thirty-five of them deflated. They were going to throw them out. I said, ‘Wait a minute, we can make money on it.’ I sold them for 35 cents instead of $1. At the end of the school year, I got a best seller award.”
Then known as Fran Walker, she took secretarial classes and after graduating from Warren G. Harding High School in 1952, she was a secretary in Warren, eventually landing a secretary job with Thomas Steel.
In 1958 she married William Cunningham, an industrial engineer. “We were married for 62 years, three months and 18 days,” Cunningham said. It was a life full of love and laughter.
Bill Cunningham died on December 18, 2020, about three years after they moved from Warren to a ranch in Howland.
Fran Cunningham worked at Thomas Steel until the children—young Bill and Jill—came about 60 years ago, 14 months apart.
At the time, most women didn’t have careers, so sororities flourished, she said. She stayed involved.
“It doesn’t matter which organization I was with, we were always fundraising for the community,” Cunningham said.
One of her fellow volunteers took real estate classes and encouraged Cunningham to do the same.
“I went to real estate school when the kids started school. I got a permit in 1971,” she said. That same year she started working for Zamarelli Real Estate.
She became a lifelong member of the Million Dollar Sales Club, Ohio Association of Realtors, in 1974, and was named Realtor of the Year in 1983 and 1985, before she and three other women formed their own Brokers Real Estate Group in 1990.
“We were all involved in the community with different groups,” Cunningham said. “The guys said we couldn’t do it, but within the first year we were the number 1 company.”
They remained the top real estate company in the province for many years. Cunningham earned another Realtor of the Year award in 1992 before merging with Coldwell Banker Eaton Group in 1996 to become Coldwell Brokers Realty Group.
They eventually sold their company in 2003. “We didn’t really want to sell, but when do you sell? If they want you,” she said.
After receiving several offers, Cunningham returned to William Zamarelli Realtors in 2003, where she remains.
She said she doesn’t know how many houses she’s sold in her 50 years and counts as a real estate agent. “I never really mapped that out. Hundreds, I know,” she said. “You meet the most wonderful people.”
Among her accolades, Cunningham was named Beta Sigma Phi Girl of the Year in 1962; Ohio Federation of Women’s Clubs Junior Club Woman of the Year in 1968 and 1972; The Trumbull Business and Professional Women’s Trumbull County Mother of the Year 1972; and the Warren Business and Professional Women’s Warren Woman of the Year, 1973.
She has held several positions with the Warren Area Board of Realtors, including president in 1985, 1992 and last year.
About her volunteerism, Cunningham said she is most proud of being a founding member and first president of the Warren Junior Women’s League. She chaired the group’s first Paint the Town Pink Follies, which raised a whopping $5,000 a year and helped buy a house to serve as a domestic violence shelter in a safe place. For over 50 years, the group has held its annual Champagne Luncheon and Style Show to raise money for the Children’s Rehabilitation Center.
“I must have had fun doing it,” she said. She encourages others to do what they can. “There is always an organization that needs your help. There is a need out there wherever you go.
“I’ve had a great life, a great marriage,” she said. “I thank God every day for life and for what he has done for me.”
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