COLUMBIA — Friends and colleagues describe Noble Cunningham as a quiet, reserved man with a passion for history.
Cunningham, who died last year, was a curator’s professor emeritus of history at MU and a nationally renowned Thomas Jefferson scholar. He wrote and edited many books about Jefferson and early American politics. One book, “The Process of Government under Jefferson,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
MU history professor Jeffrey Pasley said he only met Cunningham a handful of times, but his work was very influential.
“I think I’m a historian today because of his work,” Pasley said.
A magnolia tree on MU’s Francis Quadrangle, near the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Garden, was dedicated in honor of Cunningham on Friday afternoon as part of a roundtable discussion in his honor. The discussion, “Jeffersonian Democracy Reconsidered,” focused on Cunningham’s legacy and his contributions to history.
“One could make a pretty convincing case that he was the most prominent historian ever to be affiliated with the University of Missouri,” MU history professor Steven Watts said.
The panel, which was chaired by Watts, featured three historians influenced by Cunningham and his work. The panel members were Pasley, Andrew Robertson, a history professor at the City University of New York, and Larry Gragg, a history professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology.
Pasley said what stands out in his mind is Cunningham’s attention to detail and in-depth research.
“What Noble really zeroed in on was being as specific as possible about what actually happened in politics — about how politics and government actually worked at the ground level,” he said.
Robertson was also struck by the detail of Cunningham’s writings.
“One of the things that comes through from reading Noble’s work is how clearly written it is,” Robertson said.
But Cunningham’s work wasn’t the most remarkable thing about him, Robertson said.
“The most extraordinary thing about Noble Cunningham is not the documents and not that he wrote them,” he said. “It was how self-effacing and modest this man was.”
Cunningham became a history professor at MU in 1966, served as history department chair from 1971-1974 and earned the title of curator’s professor in 1988.
Gragg, who was a doctoral student at MU in the 1970s, said he was initially intimidated by the prospect of working with Cunningham but soon grew close to him.
“He never said anything about his new books,” Gragg said. “He always asked about me.”
Cunningham even agreed to be Gragg’s dissertation director, even though his dissertation was about the migration of 18th-century Quakers, a subject about which Cunningham knew little, he said.
When a position opened up in the history department at what was then the University of Missouri-Rolla, it was Cunningham who helped Gragg get hired.
“His efforts on my behalf led to my having one of the best jobs in the academic world,” Gragg said.