CDC researcher Cunningham remembered for work ethic, passion

Timothy Cunningham loved his little sister so much, he took her to “show and tell” at his elementary school, telling his classmates she made him feel warm and fuzzy inside. Theirs was an inseparable bond, despite the eight years between them.

On Saturday, Tiara Cunningham told hundreds gathered inside a Morehouse College chapel that her brother was her best friend, the one whom she confided in and adored. The two spoke multiple times a day, she said.

“I had him and he had me,” Tiara Cunningham said. “What I admire most about Timmy was that he walked it like he talked it.”

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

There were tears but also laughter as one by one, family, friends and colleagues described the passion for his work and his infectious smile that defined Cunningham, a researcher who is believed to have drowned. Cunningham, 35, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was a graduate of both Morehouse and Harvard University.

On April 3, Cunningham's body was pulled from the Chattahoochee River more than seven weeks after he was reported missing from his northwest Atlanta home. An autopsy determined Cunningham likely drowned, but the death remains under investigation, according to police.

Approximately 600 people attended the memorial service in the King Chapel at Morehouse, where Cunningham was a member of the Class of 2004. Despite the lingering questions surrounding his death, Saturday’s service instead focused on how Cunningham lived. He was goal-oriented and driven to succeed, yet loyal and passionate about serving others.

“It wasn’t just a career or job for him,” Capt. Marcella Law with the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion told the crowd. “Tim felt that it was his calling to use his gift and change lives.”

As a teenager, Cunningham wrote down goals he wanted to achieve within five years, 10 years and 15 years, his sister said. Then, he went to work crossing items off his list.

“How many of us do that? Tell me,” Kareemah Rasheed said after the service.

Rasheed, a former contractor with the CDC, didn’t know Cunningham, but heard so much about him through a co-worker that she wanted to attend the service.

“It was just awesome. It was awesome,” Rasheed said of the service.

After graduating high school in Maryland, Cunningham earned an academic scholarship to attend Morehouse, where he was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate, earning a degree in biology. He was involved in several organizations at Morehouse and was managing editor of The Maroon Tiger college newspaper. After Morehouse, Cunningham attended Harvard, where he earned both a masters and doctorate degree in social epidemiology.

Cunningham’s research focused on health disparities related to race, socioeconomic status, gender and geography, according to his colleagues. His work was published in numerous journals, and after teaching undergraduate classes at Morehouse, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University, Cunningham joined the CDC in 2010. At the time of his death, he was a team lead in the Epidemiology and Surveillance Branch of CDC’s Division of Population Health.

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

Neil Reed, a friend of Cunningham’s for 10 years, recalled a time the two attended a church service together. The pastor asked congregants to turn to the person beside them and repeat the words, “You are a miracle” several times. It became a catch-phrase between the friends, Reed said.

Cunningham was her child’s godfather, though he went missing days after her daughter was born.

“The body is just a body,” Reed said. “Tim’s spirit is what I hold.”

In her closing eulogy, the Rev. Jasmine Smothers had a similar message. Cunningham’s spirit will live on through others who honor his legacy.

“The questions surrounding Tim’s death do not have the power of the last word,” she said. “Tim only dies if we allow him to. Do not let his death be the last word.”

In addition to his sister, Cunningham is survived by his parents, older brother, three grandparents, and numerous other relatives. A private burial will be held Monday at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton.