by Henry Lane Hull
Over a quarter of a century ago Bill Cunningham left the hubbub of Northern Virginia and moved to a new home he built on land that his father had left to him and his brother, John, near Topping in the Middle Peninsula. Shortly thereafter, John also built on his part of the property.
The Brothers Cunningham were natives of Alexandria, where generations of their family had operated the Cunningham Funeral Home, one of the icons of the Old City. After high school Bill served in the U.S. Army, where he became a certified marksman. Following his military service he joined the Alexandria Police Department, where for seven years he instructed the trainees and young officers in marksmanship. He was knowledgeable on all aspects of weaponry, knowing how to use and not use a wide variety of pieces.
When he left the police department Bill went into the antiques business in Northern Virginia. Ultimately, he moved to Pennsylvania where he purchased a large Victorian home in need of extensive restoration. He undertook that project with his usual enthusiasm and boundless energy, bringing the house back to its original splendor. Despite the attraction of his old home, at heart Bill was a Virginian and the lure of the Old Dominion brought him home.
After he and John had decided to remove the small wooden cottage on their father’s land at Topping and proceeded to move into the two new homes on the site, Bill installed a sign stating that “Two old crabs live here,” a retort typical of his humorous repertoire. Bill thrived on gardening and laid out a geometric design with plants that provided interest all through the year. He especially liked attracting birds and pollinators, and in seasonal conversations he would tell how many butterflies or hummingbirds he had counted on a particular day.
That interest was not new to the Cunningham family as Bill often spoke of his grandfather’s homing pigeons in Alexandria, and how adept he had been in training them. Bill was fascinated with all aspects of nature.
When he moved down from Alexandria, Bill did not retire. He continued his antiques operation, albeit on a smaller scale, traveling several times a month up to Fairfax where his friend Bill Sandberg would be unloading new shipments of furniture in need of restoration. In his back yard he built a large shop where he undertook the work of restoration. In that area he was a master and as word spread he developed a large following of folks anxious to see their pieces returned to their original splendor.
Over the course of his antiques business, Bill became an avid collector of antique stoneware crockery, which led him to take a course on its restoration. In that area he achieved another level of mastery, saving great examples of stoneware, particularly items made in Alexandria and the Shenandoah Valley. His work was spectacular.
In his home and his workshop Bill put together an enormous collection of period American oil lamps, specializing in Aladdin lamps in the Lincoln Drape motif. He used to say that he had over 400 oil lamps, but a few years ago as he began downsizing, he sent the collection to auction, only to find that his claim had been too modest. He actually had 550 oil lamps.
As Bill’s health began to decline, he continued to downsize. He was no longer able to do the restoration work that brought him such great happiness, and with the death of Bill Sandberg he stopped his trips to Fairfax, and sold his van. He underwent several surgeries and gradually became confined to his home. Frequent hospital and nursing home stays ensued, but each time he would bounce back, filled with enthusiasm for getting back in business, which sadly never happened.
Two weeks ago Bill died at the age of 84 in the hospital in Richmond. His death left a great void for the legions of friends he had made across the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula throughout his years here. His distinctive voice, incredible knowledge of numerous subjects and cheerful good will made his presence unforgettable.
William Delbert Cunningham, June 18, 1934 – April 18, 2019. R.I.P.