Charlevoix lost the best last week, as Bennett Ray Cunningham of Charlevoix, passed away surrounded by his family on December 19, 2022. He was 76 years old. Ben was born April 10, 1946 in Charlevoix, and was the son of Ray and Jessie Cunningham (Potter).
Ben was a Barnard boy to his core. He grew up working and playing with cousins and neighbors who were lifelong friends. Ben’s parents taught him the virtues of hard work by both disposition and necessity. His father, Ray, had lost use of his legs at a very young age, and yet worked successfully as a radio and television repair man, and a crop sprayer for the many farms in the area. As a boy, Ben worked alongside his father in all of these jobs, as well as in the local orchards and fields, and most importantly, in his mother’s vast vegetable garden. When they weren’t working alongside their family, Ben and his brothers Stuart and Bruce were playing ball with their pals as members of the Barnard Braves, or finding some kind of mischief with Ben’s buddy Harold Smith.
Ben attended Charlevoix schools, where he was a mauler on the gridiron who threw the best cross-body block in the north, and was a dedicated trumpeter in the band. Upon graduation, he went to work for the Michigan Highway Department in a work-study program that allowed him to be the first member of his family to attend college. As he worked toward completing his degree in civil engineering first at Ferris State College, and eventually from Michigan State University, he also surveyed much of what is now US-23 and I-75 in southeastern Michigan.
Ben met the love of his life, Leslie Lyons, in kindergarten. He knew she was the one for him after seeing her tap-dance in the 2nd grade talent show, and she was already in love with his sparkling blue eyes and shiny belt buckle. By the time they reached high school, he was the most handsome boy she had ever seen in a CHS letter sweater. After many trips between Ferris and Grand Valley, they were married in 1967. As Ben was completing his degree, they welcomed their first two children, Cristin and Matthew, and they lived in Standish, Bay City, and Haslett. In 1973, they decided to make the move home to Charlevoix, and Ben joined his father-in-law, Capt. Dick Lyons, in the marine construction business. Ben bought the business in 1975 and began building what has become Lyons Marine Construction.
Ben worked tirelessly both on the barge and in the office to provide for his family. He built his business one piece at a time, with integrity and quality. He also provided jobs for many individuals who could not find work elsewhere. He was known not only as a hard worker, but also as a clever engineer who found solutions that others never dreamed were possible. As he grew his business, he and Leslie also welcomed two more sons, Michael and Thomas. Ben raised his three sons in the business. Capt. Matt Cunningham and Capt. Michael Cunningham have carried on his tradition of honesty and excellence to make Lyons Marine Construction one of the most well-respected names in the industry.
Ben was a faithful servant of his community and his church, serving as school board member of Charlevoix Schools and an elder of Community Reformed Church. He was known to his many friends and acquaintances as a patient, thoughtful, and accepting man. He had a way of talking to people that made them feel like they were the only thing that mattered at that time. Few if any ever saw Ben angry, but he quietly and effectively stood for what was right when tested.
As a father and grandfather, Ben gave all of his time to his family. Evenings and weekends were times for walks or cross-country skis in the woods, playing one-on-one in the driveway, swimming at Maple Grove beach, and going to every single sporting event or concert. He wasn’t just a father to his four kids; he was a dad to every other kid who walked in the door. He loved family parties, with croquet, softball and volleyball games, and the most gigantic bonfires (some of which the fire department attended). His annual cider party was his favorite day
s of the year, where his proud collection of Allis-Chalmers tractors were all in action as his family and friends celebrated together. For the past 23 years, the highlight of each day was seeing his grandchildren. Tractor rides, fishing on Cunningham Lake, shooting pool, playing pizza shop, and of course being there to cheer them on at all of their events are memories his grandchildren will always hold dear. In his Carhartt bibs and zipper boots, he was a legendary grandpa that was ready for any adventure.
Ben was a musician in his soul. He played his trumpet in the Charlevoix High School band, Charlevoix City Band, East Jordan Community Band, Fog Horn Jazz Band, Northern Michigan Brass Band, and his beloved Pine Lake Winds, or Geezer Band. He filled the house with music from his favorites likes Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline. He also liked to sing along to any song that he didn’t know the words to. Ben was truly a wanderer at heart who was never lost. He explored country roads either driving around or on foot, and he loved blazing trails in his own back 40. He was the original Clark Griswold, driving the family to all sorts of vacation destinations like Niagara Falls and Colorado. Later in life, he and Leslie enjoyed traveling on cruises, and joined their kids in places such as Rome and Costa Rica. They also enjoyed road tripping with their friends, and even crossing the country in their slightly less-than-capable RV. There is no doubt that he is meandering through the streets and byways of heaven on his Allis-Chalmers with his trumpet playing the sweetest tune the angels have ever heard.
Ben is survived by his wife Leslie Cunningham (Lyons) of Charlevoix, daughter Cristin Cunningham (Dirk Lillie) of Charlevoix, sons Matthew (Jennifer) Cunningham of Charlevoix, Michael (Denise) Cunningham of Charlevoix, Thomas (Natoshia) Cunningham of Ada, brother Stuart (Gloria) Cunningham of Petoskey, sister-in-law Terri Cunningham of Traverse City, his 9 grandchildren, Ray, Abby, Richie, Katie, Madie, Jack, Savvy, Louie, and Aurelia Cunningham, and many beloved nieces, nephews, and cousins. He was preceded in death by his father Ray, his mother Jessie, and his brother Bruce Cunningham.
A Celebration of Ben's Life will be held at 1:00 p.m. on Friday, December 30th at the Community Reformed Church of Charlevoix with Pastor Chip Sauer officiating. Visitation will take place from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, December 29th at the Charlevoix Chapel of Mortensen Funeral Homes.
Given his tendency to try to help those who needed a boost to get back on their feet and his love of music, memorial donations can be made to the Safe Haven Ministries Nightlight Men’s Shelter of Community Reformed Church, the Charlevoix High School Band Program, and the Charlevoix City Band.
Arrangements are in the care of the Charlevoix Chapel of Mortensen Funeral Homes. Memories and tributes can be added at www.mortensenfuneralhomes.com.