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Life story: From Red Squad to films, ex-Chicago cop did it all

James Cunningham

James Cunningham

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Updated: August 18, 2012 6:33AM

James Cunningham led a complex and colorful life, from growing up on Chicago’s South Side to serving in the Army to working as a city cop during the “Days of Rage” to finally working in the mayor’s film office.

Through it all, he remained a devoted husband and “compassionate but stern Irish father” who was proud of his family, son Mike Cunningham said.

Mr. Cunningham, who lived in the city’s Mount Greenwood community since the late 1950s, died July 6 at age 82.

Mr. Cunningham, born Sept. 3, 1929, attended St. Gabriel Elementary School in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. In 1947, he graduated from Leo High School. He married Mary Therese O’Connell in 1951, and served in the Army until 1953. He was assigned to missile batteries that protected the United States and Chicago during the Korean War.

Mr. Cunningham joined the Chicago Police Department in 1955. He was assigned first to the Chicago Lawn District, and later the Morgan Park District on the city’s Southwest Side. He worked in the organized crime unit, and in 1967 was on the city’s infamous Red Squad that investigated groups such as the SDS Weathermen and subversive individuals such as the late Abbie Hoffman during the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the “Days of Rage” in 1969.

Mr. Cunningham was upset that the Red Squad he worked hard for, investigating the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis, wound up being hampered by federal decrees that limited the police’s ability to gather intelligence, his son said.

“My dad saw the irony that the federal government said it was OK for him to shoot Communists out of the skies with missiles, should they pose a threat to this nation, but not OK for him to investigate communists if they set up camp in Chicago, under the banner of a political organization, and planned terrorist and seditious acts,” his son said.

He helped provide security for seven presidents from 1960 to 1980, as well as candidates for the White House when they visited Chicago.

From 1980 to 1989, he was assigned to the mayor’s film office, coordinating the production of movies and documentaries such as “The Untouchables,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

Given how their father worked hard for them, the lesson was not lost on the children, Mike Cunningham said.

“My father worked two and sometimes three jobs to support his family of eight children; a work ethic that he instilled in all of us,” he said. “He also gave us all a quick-witted sense of humor. I guess he knew we would need it in life.”

Mike Cunningham credited his mother with being “the backbone of this family” and raising the children while his father was providing for them.

“She held the family together while my dad was occupied with the Chicago Police Department’s nightmares. And believe me, we were all quite the handful,” Mike Cunningham said. “Mom kept us in line and always had a great warning: ‘Don’t upset your father.’ ”

Mr. Cunningham is survived by his wife, seven children, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, including one born July 1 and named James.

His funeral has already been held.

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