A Chicago businessman and chairman of the Board of Trustees of AIT and IIT for 30 years. He was also a major contributor to IIT.
A member of the gentleman class of business executives, one who had made the climb up the social ladder without the advantage of formal education beyond high school, an orphan who actually lived the American legend of rags-to-riches, James Cunningham is one of the key figures in the story of Illinois Institute of Technology.
In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, he accepted the chairmanship of the Board of Trustees at Armour Institute of Technology. Only three years before, he was merely “a good friend of the Institute,” not even a board member, who had agreed to chair a development committee. Along with fund-raising, the committee’s plan led to the emergence of the architecture program under Mies van der Rohe and the creation of Armour Research Foundation.
Cunningham, along with Armour’s President Henry Heald, responded to Lewis Institute Board Chairman Alex Bailey’s invitation to merge the two schools. Cunningham then accepted the board chairmanship of the newly created IIT, negotiating numerous contracts, directing myriad transactions, and recommending the countless decisions to follow. He also mentored the still relatively young Heald, fostering a relationship that matured into one of mutual admiration. A man of immense influence in helping shape IIT’s identity, Cunningham continued as board chairman until 1961. Other leadership roles included director of the Western Society of Engineers and president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Cunningham Hall is named in his honor.