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In the past few days, many in the community have called John Cunningham, co-founder of Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC), a “gamechanger.” There’s no doubt that he was – in more ways than one. It appears that he positively affected everyone (and everything) he came in contact with, whether it be human or pinniped.
Sadly, earlier this week, Laguna lost another legend.
John Cunningham was one of the co-founders of Friends of the Sea Lions, now known as the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. While John spent his summers as a Laguna Beach Lifeguard, education was his first love. He taught science in the Laguna Beach Unified School District for over 30 years and was widely known for creating a marine science curriculum for the school and an experiential course in survival skills that people still talk about today.
John received his BA from California State University Long Beach and received his MA from the University of Redlands. John and his wife, Stephanie, moved to Laguna Beach in 1965.
Pacific Marine Mammal Center began as Friends of the Sea Lion (FSL) in 1971 with only three volunteers: Jim Stauffer, John Cunningham, and Dr. Rose Ekeberg.
John, who co-founded FSL with Jim Stauffer, continued to be intimately involved with the organization. He was honored at the PMMC “Call of the Sea” Gala in September of 2019. The fundraiser served as an opportunity to reflect on his contributions to the organization and the greater community over the years. The event kicked off with a tribute video and as reported, there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd as they gave him a standing ovation.
On PMMC’s 50th anniversary in February 2021, he said, “In 1971, Jim Stauffer, Dr. Rose Ekeberg, and I started a small group known as the Friends of the Sea Lions. With the help of a handful of Laguna Beach high school students, our mission was to rescue, rehabilitate, and release sick and injured seals and sea lions along the Orange County coast. Today, 50 years later, I am so proud to still be a part of what’s become a world-class nonprofit now known as the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.”
FSL was the first licensed marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation center in the state of California. It began with two lifeguards, a veterinarian, and a concerned little girl for a sick harbor seal on the beach.
In the spring of 1971, a little girl approached Jim Stauffer, a Newport Beach lifeguard, on the beach. The little girl told Jim that she had seen a seal on the beach. Jim hopped in his lifeguard Jeep and went to go investigate. What he found was a young Pacific harbor seal. When Jim placed the animal in his Jeep, it leaped right out. Jim decided the animal must be healthy and just needed to rest, so he returned to work.
Concern for the animal nagged at him all day. When Jim returned to check on the small seal, it was still on the beach. Jim picked up the seal and took it to the Dover Shores Animal Hospital, where Dr. Rod La Shell examined the animal and found that it had lungworms. With advice from Dr. La Shell, Jim nursed the harbor seal back to health and released the animal back into the ocean.
Word of Jim’s nursing skills soon spread. Whenever there was a sick or injured seal or sea lion on the beach, lifeguards would contact him. Within a few weeks, Jim was caring for a second California sea lion. John, another lifeguard, began helping Jim care for the animals.
The Department of Fish and Game issued the first permit of its kind in California. Jim was allowed to temporarily house seals and sea lions at his home.
With the organization growing quickly, a facility other than Jim’s home and pool was necessary. At that time, the local SPCA was using a barn owned by the City of Laguna Beach. In 1976, when the SPCA relocated, the building was offered to Pacific Marine Mammal Center. Jim, John, and a few volunteers began renovation of the barn that still functions today as the Center’s rehabilitation hub.
During the school year, John taught at Laguna Beach High School and, in 1972, he developed a marine science class. One of the requirements for the students of John’s class was volunteering at Pacific Marine Mammal Center. Dr. Ekeberg of Laguna Canyon Animal Hospital provided medicine and medical advice, as well as housing some of the animals at her clinic.
“John was such an inspiration,” says PMMC Chief Executive Officer Peter Chang. “He made an overwhelming and lasting impression with everyone that he touched. He was always so thankful to the entire Pacific Marine Mammal Center family for carrying on something that he was so extremely passionate about. He left an incredible legacy. In fact, a great deal of what we do today is a result of what John instilled into the fabric of our culture and operations. Although he’s moved on, he will never be forgotten. He is someone that will be missed dearly.”
John Wilkerson (“Wilk”)
I loved having John around the department; sharing ideas, laughing, having fun with the kids, helping to bail me out of having potential trouble with the administration. There were several times when I overextended my lunch period surfing at Rock Pile, resulting with the kids standing outside my room waiting to come in. When John saw them all crowded up he’d just unlock the door and let them in [a true friend]. Shortly afterwards I’d come in dripping wet in my wetsuit.
The kids loved him. To this day many kids (now mature adults) have told me that he was their favorite teacher, a good guy, a kind person.
John was more than a teacher of subject matter. He taught his Survival class the importance of cooperation, helping and supporting one another, working things out as a team.
In my mind these are lasting memories, a legacy of a kind, gentle person.
John Wilkerson (“Wilk”)
Friends For Life
Laura, Im sorry this note to you has taken this long, I just returned from Europe.
I was deeply sadden by your father’s passing. I am lucky to have interacted with your parents over the years, I even remember a dinner at the Diamond house when you were just a toddler. Your father is an iconic classic of a waterman, a mentor, an educator and a fantastic person. He was a “Renaissance Man” who touched the lives of so many people. I loved encountering your mom and dad in town when I was raising my girls in Laguna, to me your parents and Dale & Marilyn Ghere are the perfect examples of a classic Laguna couple. Your family home on Diamond Street with all the reclaimed beams your dad put in the house and the gardens your mom had surrounding the house still impress me to this day.
I first encountered your dad as a sea cub, my mom put me in the program because I wasn’t afraid of the water and constantly being pulled out of the water by the lifeguards at Crescent Bay. Having an Orange Sea Cub tee shirt and patch, and running around main beach was my first encounter with Lifeguarding that would shape my life. My first year guarding was 1969 ten years after your father started. I was in the second rookie class and we looked up to the guards of your fathers experience and stature.They taught us that giving back to our community and protecting lives and preserving the ocean for others was paramount.
I admired those guards who were teaching and during college I was able to be the lifeguard / group leader on 3 Thurston River trips. On one of those trips I camped my students on a sandbar for the night in the middle of nest of rattlesnakes, We sent word to your dad and Jim Herdman and they help us secure the site for safer camping that night. I eventually became a teacher, I did my student teaching at Laguna Beach High and I taught for a year in the Laguna system and coached water polo and was also a long term sub at Thurston for six months.
Later I returned to help your dad in his survival classes, I loved the rock training at woods cove and the zip lines behind the baseball fields.
I loved the cameo appearance of your dad in our high school play. Your father was a beautiful person, he loved life and was a strong positive influence in my life, as a person, a lifeguard and as a teacher. John had an iconic laugh that was contagious.
I will celebrate your father’s life for his values influenced mine. Unfortunately I will be out of the country and will miss his paddle out , but I will be there is spirt. Your father will continue to live within you and your future generations, His spirit of life and being a Laguna Beach teacher and lifeguard continues.
My best wishes to you, your family and your mom.
I remember John Cunningham when many of us took the 1963 guard test. He was the fellow we had to go around in the run-swim-run competition. Many fellow guards: Lincke, Lockwood and Likens among several others were there competing for the job. John was handsome, powerful, decent, good natured and a great role model. Many days at Main on the front deck Westgaard, Cunningham and myself would compete doing handstands, backflips, etc. into the sand. He also had a wicked volleyball serve at the HS gym. Stephanie was a great partner and the two of them made a fine pair. Rest in peace John for a life well-lived.
My heart is aching and my eyes burn with the tears that do not quit flow… he was such an inspiration. So many memories and great times spent with him…
Stephanie gave me a great picture of John several years ago. It is a dramatic looking picture. At the time I thought it was a professional photograph of John. Last week I met with Stephanie and Laura to discuss how we could organize a time to commemorate John’s life. While looking through some old pictures together an album was opened that showed the picture of John I so cherish. So handsome, so strong, the ideal looking lifeguard wearing what has become for me one of the Laguna Beach Lifeguard’s symbols. The white bathing suits and patch of 1960.
When I made a remark that it looked like a classic professional photograph Stephanie quickly corrected me and gave the correct story about the photo.
John had been contacted by someone from Hollywood who asked him to try out for the part as Tarzan in a new picture that was to be made. John thought that was a great idea and made plans to go. When his father heard what was happening he told John he needed to take a portfolio of pictures to show the people. With that in mind his father set out to take a bunch of pictures of John doing all sorts of things to show his athletic abilities: standing tall, climbing a palm tree, diving off a high board while doing a flip were among many of the photos in the album. All of the pictures were very high quality and showed John well. I asked Stephanie what happened during the interview. She said John was told he was too short for the part.
When I commented that it is too bad he didn’t get selected for the part she quickly replied with “It was the best thing that ever happened to us.” She went on to explain that she has thought about it often since then. She said just think of all the things John would never have done if he had gone to Hollywood instead of staying in Laguna Beach. He would have never become a teacher or continued on as a lifeguard. He would never have become a diver or helped to develop the Marine Center program. He would never have developed the Colorado River trips for Thurston School or the survival class for the Laguna Beach High School students. He certainly would have never become a painter or a potter. Think of all the people we would have not met if we had gone away. “No, our lives would have been quite different from the way it turned out. This life has been much better for us.”
Knowing the story behind the picture makes it much more dear to me. I am glad John was too short to be Tarzan. If he had left, it would have made a big difference in my life, the lives of my children and the lives of a lot of people in Laguna Beach.
I love the memory I have of John standing before his Mermaids or Sea Cubs and repeating his mantra after every lesson. “Every day, in every way, we get a little better.” I can almost hear him saying the words as I write this story. He had a smile and an encouraging word for everyone. He is a man to remember and honor with our gratitude.
I was so honored to have John as my master teacher at Thurston when I started my teaching career in Laguna Beach. It was a pleasure to have those early years with him. He contributed so much to the community, LBHS and the Life Guard Department. I will honor and cherish my memories for ever and miss those times of the past.
Sad to hear. We'll miss you at the reunions. John and I had a Peanuts [cartoon] relationship while I was guarding in Laguna. John would see me coming to work..."Linus [because I was wearing my hat] how you doing, I'd respond..."fine Lucy...you coming down to Diver's today?"
I will always honor his memory. He was one of my idols growing up. I will never forget his efforts to restore the life of a near drowning victim at Woods Cove during my tenure (a young man named Wilson as I recall). He just was not willing to give up on a young life.
One of the best!! You will be missed my friend and mentor. RIP John
John’s paddled across Life’s reef, and shines now as a bright star on our shared horizon.
LEGEND.. RIP JC
John was an inspiration to all of us who were new guards. He was someone who you never forgot even though after guarding I had very little contact with him. Rest in peace.
Mary Elaine Sonksen
My favorite recollection of John was his amazing ability to bake!
He taught me to use 7-Up and not water in my pie crusts. Works beautifully and I use it still. Loved him! Big heart, strong man and soooo interesting. A true Renaissance man! He is missed!
Mary Elaine Sonksen
I always felt that John was one of my best friends, but I know he was that way with everyone. He was one of the most compassionate and caring people I ever knew. He was just a really good guy. I loved guarding with John. I never questioned his ability and determination to have my back. One of my fondest memories was the day we took Dave Pyle’s ashes out on John’s boat to scatter them off Wood’s. It was a very spiritual time and John made it so.
If anyone deserves a special place in Heaven, it’s John Cunningham and I’m sure he is looking down at all of us with love.
Thank you for the quick response. We’re Checking in with some of the others from our class of 1972 and 1973. Your Dad was our Commodore for the first Colorado Float Trip — we loved him!
I was a lifeguard with John Cunningham in 1961 & 1962. He was a great guy and his character has been wonderfully described by all those who knew him a lot longer than I did.
I wanted to share a few photos from the 2019 Lifeguard Reunion with John and other guards of my era.
John Cunningham. Mr. Cunningham to me. With great affection I recall certain events involving Mr. C dating back a half century to my youth. A teenager, aged 13, attending Thurston middle school with a seriously underdeveloped frontal cortex and a slew of bad decisions and their consequences lying ahead.
Grace and dignity come to mind foremost when I think of Mr. C. One terrifying encounter with Mr. C along with several life contributing events instrumental to my growth and personal development would follow. To this day, I can see Mr. C punting a football in a “perfect spiral” 60 to 70 yards on the field at Thurston, circa 1971. Built like a brick sh*thouse (meaning “sturdy”— for the generations removed from such a term— is a brick constructed out-house ‘toilet’.) Mr. C, having possessed exemplary posture with a rigid spine of steel perfectly erect and a jaw line to match, could have worn a Marine Staff Sergeant uniform worthy of casting in films. Mr. C’s thighs, which were equivalent to tree stumps in strength and girth, cause his legs to appear short to me in scale set atop a broad muscular square torso. A dozen or so clustered footballs lay around his feet on the Thurston field each in sequence to be hand selected and then punted to the opposite side of the field. I can still visualize the elliptical pigskin sailing across the heavens of backdrop blue sky in a perfect spiral following contact with Mr. C’s kicking foot. This punting practice would repeat itself in both directions several times.
My ‘one and only’ bad decision involving Mr. C occured when I chose to fire up a joint (marijuana) on the same school field where Mr. C kicked footballs. A fellow student more troublesome than the weed we were about to smoke, whose name I will only refer to by initials E.H., played a masterful guitar and was way beyond his years. E.H. ‘dragged’ my innocent self to the furthest outpost of the Thurston field looking north over the Laguna Canyon to light up a fat one of choice hemp of the day, Panama Red. Now super stoned and reeling from the effect of the weed, fear of getting caught, and the crazy energy of E.H. my adolescent brain was adrift and spinning. At the peak of my out of body buzz I caught a glimpse of Mr. C doing a hundred yard dash directly toward ME. C’s incredible speed caused his tree stump legs to appear blurred, similar to the Incredibles movie character Dash. My own motion, in contrast, to rid said evidence of the joint in our procession I felt like I was submerged in molasses (sloooow motion). From Mr. From C's perspective it must have looked like we were sending smoke signals to fellow tribesmen at the corners of the canyon. In sheer panic I flicked the burning blunt over the canyon parameter fence in an effort to hide evidence and prayed it would not catch the hillside on fire. Within a split second Mr. C was in my face. In that instance, I wasn’t certain that I had not soiled my pants at the same time my heart was palpitating and my breath was short. Mr. C began his interrogation: “What are you up to?” Fear etched in my face and my pants possibly soiled I then blurted out in a weak voice that we were looking at the view (a sharp as a marble response). Mr. C with a glean in his eyes and pearly white smile, which was always present, stated that our English class teacher was missing our bodies. Mr. C could have grabbed us by the arms and dragged our sorry asses to the principles office to apply corporal punishment. Instead, a man of character, grace, and dignity saw in my face that the punishment and lesson was complete. Calmly, Mr. C suggested we return to English class. To this day I am grateful for this act of kindness, generosity and forgiveness. Years following this incident I would go on to do volunteer work alongside Mr. C at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in the first years of the organization's history. Together, Mr. C and I would blend anchovy smoothie and funnel the solution into a surgical hose and down the throat of a sea lion in need of nutrition. I found this work ‘life event’ to be significant, gratifying and stimulating which in turn gave me a great appreciation for the care of both the ocean and the creatures in need of our human support. My relationship with Mr. C would continue to grow and advance in sporting events and more importantly field trips to both desert and mountain locations. These field trip experiences I value as major influences for my love of the natural world. I owe in large part my connection to nature to Mr. C and our overnight field trips taken in the mid-seventies.
In many cultures around the world, it is believed once a person touches your heart their heart-spirit is retained in yours. To this extent Mr. C will occupy a place in my heart until my final breath. Mr. C while here you did a really good job!
LBHS Class of 1976
I feel the need to express my gratitude to Mr. Cunningham. To me, he will always be Mr. Cunningham. My gym class at Thurston Jr. High was taught by Laverne Dugger, an ex-military drill sergeant (it only felt that way). He was stern, direct, and everything a fatherless boy could want for direction and boundaries. Corporal punishment was applied to those that challenged his authority. In eighth grade, we were introduced to the new gym teacher, Mr. Cunningham. He had a smile (an honest one), he was huge, and his personality filled every room he occupied. Mr. Cunningham was the opposite of Mr. Dugger. He radiated health and joy. If ever there was a coach that inspired you to perform at a level that made him proud, it was Mr. Cunningham.
Two memorable events I carry to this day. One included the time in a gymnastics class where he bench-pressed Laverne Dugger. This one event changed all our minds to embrace this new gym teacher, and the word of his accomplishment spread throughout the school. Mr. Cunningham had used me as an example. First off, you should know, I was the smallest boy in school. The smallest! Laying flat on the gym mat, he directed me to cross my legs, stay stiff as a board, and embrace his enormous paw on my chest. He proceeded in one smooth, effortless gesture to lift me off the mat and over his head. I started to giggle, and he quickly directed me to stay stiff as a board. He then began to do overhead presses with me to the delight of those present. Someone in the room yelled, “Press Mr. Duggar”! He glanced at Mr. Duggar to get his willingness to participate. A room full of impressionistic boys and male testosterone set the historic moment. Mr. Cunningham laid on the mat, Mr. Duggar stood directly over Mr. Cunningham. Mr. Duggar leaned over and embraced Mr. Cunningham’s hand over his chest while Mr. Cunningham reached for the seam between Mr. Duggar’s crossed legs. In one motion, Mr. Duggar swung directly over the top of Mr. Cunningham, staying stiff as a board, and Mr. Cunningham using all his strength, pressed Mr. Duggar twice (think a bench press). The room erupted, and the legend was born!
The second event was the water safety test day. We were all instructed to come to school with a pair of Khaki pants (with no holes in the knees). One by one, we climbed to the top of the high diving board, wearing our pants. We were to jump into the pool, remove our pants quickly, zip up the zipper, and tie a knot in both legs (each leg with a knot) while treading water. Holding the opening, throw it back over your head, and with a quick motion, fling your pants forward to capture air. Holding the belt loop underwater, the legs of your pants were now a flotation device as you put your head between the balloon legs and kicked to the shallow end of the pool. What a day!!!
Thank you, Mr. Cunningham,
Jan and Don Vickers
John was a respected teacher for the students of LBUSD for many years. He enriched student science offerings with marine science classes and a survival course. Of course his significant legacy as the founder with Jim Stauffer of Friends of the Sea Lion is perhaps more well known but the impact of a quality teacher on many students is life long as those students learn the importance of the environment and how to care for it.
We have known John and Stephanie for many years in all their involvements in Laguna Beach. They are one of the many quiet solid citizens who have made Laguna a family centered town without needing accolades or public praise. However I am grateful that John’s contributions to our students and our ocean is being celebrated.
We will miss John.
Jan and Don Vickers
During my freshman year health class I gave a talk on alcoholism at the end of which I vowed not to drink alcohol. Several of my classmates sneered, and this stance certainly didn't win me any popularity points. You may or may not know I was bullied rather severely at times. Immediately after making the vow, John stood up, walked over to me, and said "I need to shake your hand". He also complimented me after class for my courage. Nobody else had much to say about it, and I am sure he had something to do with later awarding me the Harward award. I never forgot his show of support and I have always been grateful of that.
Paddle Out, Picnic Beach
September 11, 2021