“We’re part of the community, and we want to help make this a better place for all.”
–Carlene Cunningham

2016 President’s Medallion Award Recipient

From their home in eastern Merced County, the land flows out in all directions. To the west, fertile fields are stitched in a patchwork blanket of farms. Further eastward, the land rises up into rolling foothills, eventually forming the jagged peaks of the Sierras.

For several generations, the Cunningham family has made this area their home. For Jim and Carlene Cunningham, though they have traveled widely, it remains the best place on earth.

Today we honor Jim and Carlene with the 2016 President’s Medallion, a distinction given to those members of our community who have worked tirelessly and selflessly to improve the lives of all who call this area home. Though they have not sought public recognition for their philanthropy and volunteer efforts, we are grateful to them, and today we give them the praise that is their due.

The Cunningham’s relationship with Merced College goes back to the very founding of the community college district. Jim’s father Byron was one of the original members of the first governing Board of Trustees, a seat that Jim would later hold for many years. Jim and Carlene sent each of their three children to Merced College and they have all gone on to enjoy successful careers while raising Jim and Carlene’s seven grandchildren.

Married 53 years ago in the Planada Community Church, Jim and Carlene live on the 2,000-acre Cunningham Ranch where they still raise cattle and where James Cunningham, Jim’s great-grandfather, first settled in 1853. In fact, Jim’s father “was born in a little house down the road.”

At its height in 1883, the Cunningham Ranch encompassed about 16,000 acres with 1,200 head of cattle, 4,000 sheep, 200 hogs, and scores of chickens, ducks, and geese. Though smaller by comparison, the ranch today normally supports 300 cattle and several long barns full of chickens.

That long history of stewardship of the land and their own personal ethic of community involvement mark the Cunninghams as one of the area’s most respected families.

“We believe it’s important to give back to the community,” remarked Carlene. “We’re part of the community, and we want to help make this a better place for all.”

And they have.

The list of local organizations and activities they’ve supported over many years is extensive. The local 4-H and FFA chapters were well served by their volunteer leadership and their children, Mike, Kelly, and Jill, grew up in 4-H programs, an experience that Jim says taught them valuable life-long lessons and responsibilities that prepared them for the adult world.

Serving on the Merced County Board of Education (1969-75), the Planada Elementary School Board (1975-79), the Le Grand High School Board (1979-83), and the Merced College Board of Trustees (1985-1994), Jim has helped guide educational programs for many thousands of students. Carlene’s work to preserve local history found her serving on the Merced County Historical Society board for many years, including being elected president twice. She has also at various times been a Brownie, Girl Scout, and even a Cub Scout leader. Carlene, who worked for the US Postal Service for 31 years, the last 11 as the Postmaster for the community of Planada, was also a project leader of the Le Grand 4-H Club from 1978-82. With a bit of wry humor, Carlene says that she also “ran a taxi service, taking our kids to their different club and sporting events.”

Jim and Carlene are both proud to be early supporters of UC Merced, and Jim continues to serve on the Mercy Medical Center Foundation Board and the Merced Theatre Foundation Board. He was named by the Merced Chamber of Commerce as its “Citizen of the Year” in 1996.

The couple has made major gifts to Merced College, UC Merced, the Merced Theatre, the Mercy Medical Center, Friends of the Fair, and many other worthwhile organizations. In fact, the amphitheater area we are enjoying today would not have been possible without their financial support.

The list of Jim and Carlene’s volunteer activities and their philanthropic contributions are as numerous and as far ranging as the hundreds of cattle that roam the quiet foothills of eastern Merced County.