John Cunningham, 1967-1968: Campus cattle drives, the Vietnam War, and social clubs
In this series, we will trace the history of the Top O’ The World through the recollections of the paper’s former editors.
John Cunningham was elected Editor of Top O’ the World during the 1967-1968 academic year after working previously as both a writer and a business manager for the student paper beginning in 1965. He remembers that his first piece was a feature for Etcetera, the student magazine published in concert with Top O’ the World, on Winston Churchill’s life after his passing in Jan. 1965.
In his role as business manager, Cunningham would ride his bike around town picking up the ad copy from Mario’s Pizza and other businesses around town. “It was a pretty nice job until my bike got stolen, then my roommate wrote a searing editorial about the poor business manager and how his bike’s been stolen,” recounts Cunningham.
Cunningham says that without a journalism major or relevant coursework offered at Western, the paper’s editorial standard was not always the highest during his time with the paper. Cunningham’s roommate at the time submitted political cartoons, and often articles poking fun at professors for their real or perceived misbehavior were published. Cunningham notes that fellow Mountaineer student Mike Taylor was doing a great job on the sports beat during a time in which Western’s football team was consistently winning the RMAC Championship.
Top O’ the World also covered the annual student dances, and one year even published a specialized Homecoming Edition in color. Cunningham wrote a number of features on the research going on at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL), the research laboratory in Gothic, Colorado in the mountains beyond Crested Butte that maintains an ongoing partnership with Western.
Navigating campus politics
In those days, the editor was selected by what was known then as the Associated Student Body (ASB), but what is now called Student Government Association (SGA). “It was a little like succession to the crown, because generally the business editor became Assistant Editor and [then the Editor],” says Cunningham, who took over the editor’s chair from Dick Montrose. In hindsight, Cunningham notes the folly of selecting a position like editor by a vote. “What happened was the people who chose me as editor were not the same people who were there the next year,” he says.
With a shift in campus politics, Cunningham found himself ousted, and later pushed for systemic change. “I started proposing a committee that would be appointed with the job of selecting an editor not based on their popularity…[but] on their talents.” Back then, the Quigley Club and the Luftseben Club, a pair of social, political, and community service clubs on campus, were competing for influence and status at Western.
Cunningham believes he had run afoul with the Quigley Club members by hanging around with the more “elite” Luftseben crowd, who had gotten a reputation for being wild partiers. He remembers asking a member about the Luftseben Club. The member replied, “our job is to party with the elite of Western State College. That’s a direct quote…I would say better than half the kids who belonged to that club were from back east…they were party people,” notes Cunningham.
Because every club, fraternity, and organization at Western was granted one vote within the ASB, there was a tendency to do some vote “stuffing” by formulating new sanctioned campus organizations, each of which received a vote. Properly incentivized, Luftseben members chartered the Waterskiing club, the Ski Club, the Geology Club, and others, and the Quigley Club acted similarly.
“I was very politically naive, and I was just in the job because I was having a lot of fun, and one night I was down at the Red Dolly Pub and someone says: ‘hey, Cunningham, you’re about to be impeached!’”, says Cunningham. “I still have got the paper with the votes pro and con on [my] impeachment.”
The Vietnam War comes to Western
One of Cunningham’s big editorial pushes with Top O’ the World was to assemble two full pages of letters and editorials about the ongoing Vietnam War. “I wanted to have as many letters as possible, I announced that. Of course, the antiwar people were much noisier than the pro-war people. I had quite a few antiwar articles…and a poem about the war, and it appeared that I was not very objective about it,” says Cunningham of the editorial disparity. Although his firing came not too long after that piece ran, he views the timing as more of a convenient excuse to pounce on him by the Quigley Club members, rather than a genuine journalistic stance.
Cunningham remembers that Prof. Trần Văn Dĩnh, a Vietnam native and scholar who had held posts in Vietnam’s diplomatic corps in Asia and in America, came to Gunnison to speak in opposition to the ongoing war. The professor and peace activist was greeted with anti-Asian discrimination while at a local gas station.
Despite the outburst of editorials in Top O’ the World, Cunningham says that antiwar sentiment at Western was rather muted compared to many other American universities for a variety of demographic and geographic reasons. “We always joked that there had been an antiwar protest at every college in the state of Colorado except Western State,” he says.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cunningham recalls that some students affiliated with the Quigley Club organized a series of “study-ins”. “It was to support the war, and to support scholarship, and to support good citizenship, and so they would have these study-ins all night long and cloak it in patriotic themes. I didn’t go to any,” says Cunningham.
Gunnison’s place in the world
After Cunningham was fired in the spring of 1968, his successor at the newspaper was arrested (and later convicted) for breaking and entering into the Western Motel. Cunningham ended up writing about the incident for the Gunnison County Globe, the town newspaper and the precursor to the Gunnison Country Times which ceased publication in 1975. “Revenge is sweet,” says Cunningham with a laugh.
Cunningham’s beat with the Globe varied widely, from covering Crested Butte school board meetings to judging the “yard of the week”. He also dreamed up and wrote stories that suited his historical inclinations, like a feature on the Pioneer Cemetery near Dos Rios. Cunningham remembers being bewildered when asked to cover Cattlemen’s Days. “Being from Denver, being a city kid, I had no clue about anything [rodeo-related], like ‘what the hell is this stuff?’
Cunningham believes that Gunnison’s physical separation from the world played a big role in suppressing antiwar sentiments. He remembers having little to no access to television (a cable system was being installed during his Western tenure, but was not popular at the time), and that the Denver and local radio stations would both finish broadcasting by 5 p.m. That left KOMA Radio in Oklahoma City as Gunnison’s lone consistent connection to the outside world during the evenings.
The news that Gunnison did get via radio was rather conservative, mirroring the views of the region’s population, largely farmers and ranchers. Cunningham remembers watching a cattle drive come down above Kelley Hall while sitting in class one day, “There aren’t a whole lot of colleges where you would watch a cattle drive come down through the edge of the campus,” he says. Cunningham recalls attending a journalism convention in Flagstaff, Arizona and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of news and information offered from the broader world.
The outside world comes to Gunnison
But news and broader culture occasionally did occasionally come to Gunnison. Gus Grissom was a former U.S. Air Force pilot and an astronaut in the Project Gemini and Apollo programs, and he became the second American to fly into space. Grissom made a trip to Gunnison during Cunningham’s tenure at the Globe.
Cunningham covered Grissom’s arrival, and remembers Gunnison’s mayor at the time remarking, “my God, this is really gonna put us on the map.” Even reaching Gunnison was much harder in those days, says Cunningham, who notes that the planes that made the trip from the Front Range were referred to by the cheeky moniker “vomit comets”.
Cunningham looks back fondly on his Western days, and appreciates the experience he picked up writing with both Top O’ the World and the Gunnison County Globe. Cunningham’s passion for writing has continued long after his Western days, and he maintained his own website entitled “The Lost City of Colorado Springs” where he wrote historical features, including on Colorado Springs’ local minor league baseball team, the Sky Sox, which has since been moved to Amarillo, Texas.
Cunningham’s website was something of a personal campaign to document the culture and history of Colorado Springs. “I felt like Colorado Springs has been growing so fast that we’ve lost where we’ve come from…I don’t think there’s much heart to the city right now, and it’s nobody’s fault,” says Cunningham.
After departing Gunnison, Cunningham taught history and economics in his native Colorado Springs for 30 years before his retirement.