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Longtime Buffalo Naval Park leader dies at 78

WBFO''s Marian Hetherly

The Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park is planning to celebrate opening day of its 38th season and the 40th anniversary of its ships' arrival in Buffalo Saturday at 10 a.m. However, for the first time in nearly 25 years, one important person will not be present. Park Executive Director Col. Patrick Cunningham, U.S. Army (Ret.), died Thursday in intensive care, surrounded by family. He would have celebrated his 79th birthday on April 2.

"He was ill for a good number of years and he took an appreciable downturn after the passing of his wife two years ago," said Park Chair Donald Alessi. "He would not quit. He insisted on coming to work every day and, even when he was unable to come to work, he would be available by phone and by email or by text."

Alessi said, with over 30 years of service to his country, Cunningham thought of the Park as his "family member" and helped save the veterans memorial park during its many struggling years by refusing to take a salary at times and loaning the non-profit money.

Alessi has been a leader of the Park since its beginning and said he had the pleasure of working with Cunningham throughout his tenure.

"I found him to be an outstanding gentleman, totally dedicated to the mission of the Naval & Military Park," said Alessi, "So he always considered it a labor of love and the Park is totally indebted to him," Alessi said. 

After graduation from St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and then Canisius College in 1959, the ROTC cadet was commissioned as an artillery officer at Fort Bragg, NC. Cunningham's active duty included tours in Korea, France and Germany.

He worked with the U.S. Information Agency on psychological warfare during the Vietnam War and later, at the Pentagon, managed the budget for all active duty and retired Army personnel. He served his last five years of active duty as Chief of Staff at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Lawrence, IN.

Alessi said funeral services are being planned and, although Saturday would have been a celebration of the Park's new season, it now also will be a celebration of Cunningham's life and contribution to the community.

Given his failing physical condition, Cunningham prepared a succession plan. Alessi said Cunningham advocated Capt. Brian Roche, a 36-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and Commander of U.S.C.G. Sector Buffalo, take over as Executive Director.

"At a meeting of the Board of Directors Thursday evening, the Board hired Brian Roche as its next Executive Director to work alongside with Col. Cunningham, who was made Executive Director Emeritus," said Alessi. "Needless to say, the news we received overnight has changed that timetable."

Credit Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park

Cunningham had been hospitalized for a number of days and the announcement of his passing came shortly after the meeting.

Founded in 1976, the Park is the historical anchor of Canalside on Buffalo’s waterfront and tourism asset. The largest permanent veterans tribute of its kind in the United States, it stands as a tribute to those who have served in the armed forces and is Western New York’s resource for military history.

The Park had been looking forward to the commissioning of the new U.S.S. Little Rock this September at Canalside. It will be the first time a U.S. Navy ship has been commissioned in Buffalo and the first time an active U.S. Navy ship has been commissioned alongside its decommissioned namesake. Alessi said he expects an additional tribute to Cunningham at that time.

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