Emory O. Cunningham

1921-2000
Publisher, Civic Leader, Philanthropist

Print Version

Most of those who recognize the name of Kansas, Ala., native Emory Cunningham will think first of his contributions to the world of publishing. Fewer know how Cunningham used that success to serve the state and institutions he cherished.

Born to a farming father and teaching mother, Cunningham went on to play a prominent role in both professions, but in ways few could have imagined. After serving as a U.S. Navy reconnaissance pilot in the Pacific theater of World War II, Cunningham returned to Alabama, earned a B.S. degree in agricultural science at Auburn University and went to work selling advertising for Progressive Farmer magazine. He rose through the ranks of that corporation, and eventually led it as president and CEO.

Cunningham's success with Progressive Farmer opened the door to his idea for a new project he hoped might help rehabilitate the reputation of his home state and region. His Southern Living magazine debuted in 1966, while visions of a violently segregationist South were still at the forefront of national consciousness. In its pages, readers found a suburban South that defied stereotype. The magazine celebrated the best of the region--food, family and natural beauty--and carried Cunningham's vision to an eager market. The success of Southern Living brought Cunningham national and regional honors, including the 1976 Magazine Publisher of the Year award, and induction into the Alabama Business Hall of Fame and Alabama Academy of Honor.

Cunningham found ways to turn those personal honors into service to Alabama, either through direct philanthropy or through service. He was deeply committed to education, and served as a trustee of his alma mater and as an adviser to the presidents of the University of Alabama and University of Alabama at Birmingham. He also served the Birmingham Museum of Art, Calloway Gardens, Birmingham Symphony and Birmingham Heart Association.

In the vernacular of his beloved South, one could say that Emory Cunningham didn't fall far from the tree. But it's a long way from depression-era Kansas, Ala., to the thriving, worldly metropolis of Birmingham that Cunningham helped build. We celebrate the man who embodied the best values of both worlds.

Emory O. Cunningham was inducted into the Alabama Men's Hall of Fame in 2013.