Longtime East Dallas insurance executive Bill “Bulldog” Cunningham died Sunday, April 24, at the age of 84. Cunningham died from complications associated with prostate cancer. Services will be Saturday, May 7, at First Baptist Church in Downtown Dallas, beginning with a visitation and lunch at noon, and services at 2:30 p.m. Interment will follow a procession to Sparkman Hillcrest with full military honors, including a 21-gun salute; Cunningham was awarded multiple Purple Hearts for service during the Korean War.
One of the most frequent questions people ask when they find out I work at the Advocate is about Bulldog, since many are familiar with his monthly ad in the magazine for the past 25 years: What’s he like, people would ask, and where did he get the nickname “Bulldog”?
As far as I know, the nickname came from his football days at Woodrow Wilson High School. Bulldog and wife Mina lived most of their lives in East Dallas, and they were married for more than 60 years. (We published a story about a few of the neighborhood’s multigenerational familes in 2009, and the Cunninghams were included.)
There’s a great photo in Bulldog’s office of him wearing his high school football gear, his face squeezing from the leather helmets they wore back then, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that his appearance alone led to the nickname.
But there was a lot more to the guy than a picture and a nickname.
Bulldog was one of the first people I contacted when I thought it would be a good idea to start a neighborhood publication. I visited him in his office, and as he sat there studying me behind a desk that seemed oversized for his frame, he asked me the question I heard most often from prospective advertisers back then: “How do I know what you’re doing is going to be good for Lakewood?”
I tap-danced a bit, because I was selling an idea rather than a product. But apparently I came up with enough to convince Bulldog to give us a shot, and he became the third advertiser to sign up, right after Realtor Carol Hensley and State Farm insurance agent Annette Stone.
Because Stone was the first insurance agent to commit, several weeks prior to Bulldog, she got my personal and company insurance business, something that Bulldog nagged me about for years in what we in sales like to call a “pleasantly persistent” way. And he never let me forget that every month he was writing a check to me, but I wasn’t sending any money his way.
So it was no big surprise to me years later when, no more than 10 minutes after Stone told me she was selling her agency and retiring, who was on the phone asking for my business? Bulldog, of course.
He had a peculiar but endearing way of talking: He managed to mingle formal language with casual, creating his own funky-yet-regimented delivery that was as endearing as it was unique. If you ever checked out his monthly ads in our magazine, you know what I mean: He crammed more information about more insurance and investment topics into those ads than I ever thought possible, and he made it work for his business.
Year after year, he was a top salesman with Farmers Insurance. And when Bulldog and Farmers parted ways a few years ago when he was about 80, he didn’t retire. Instead, he started up a whole new agency, and just a few weeks ago, he was named one of the country’s top-producing agents for Safeco.
Bulldog was always selling, no matter where he was or what he was doing, and he always managed to work the sales angle in a homespun way. Insurance may have been his career, but he was just as likely to be promoting something he believed was good for our neighborhood: a mayoral or statewide candidate or fronting a way to raise money for Woodrow or endorsing something related to the Greater East Dallas Chamber of Commerce, which was one of his great passions.
He didn’t come up with the idea for the Chamber’s annual Economic Summit (Bulldog would want me to remind you that this year’s summit is Oct. 18 at the DoubleTree Campbell Center, and plenty of sponsorships are available), but he invested a lot of time the past few years building the event into a great showcase for neighborhood development and ideas.
He arm-twisted people to help serve on the presenting committee. He played hardball when negotiating with vendors. And he never stopped working people for sponsorships — in short, he did the work that most of us shy away from because it’s uncomfortable asking people for money. When he took over the Summit, it earned about $3,700 for the Chamber in 2012; last year’s Summit earned more than $27,000.
Bottom line, Bulldog was one of the nicest and most interesting guys I’ve met in this business, someone who genuinely cared about our neighborhood and those of us who live and work here.
His insurance business will continue, operated by one of his four sons, and others will certainly step up to try and fill his civic shoes.
But one-of-a-kind guys such as Bulldog are just about impossible to replace.
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