Alice Embree :
METRO | Alice Kresensky Cunningham
(July 14, 1935 – June 23, 2017)

As part of a faith-based social justice ministry, Cris played a sustaining role for many movement activists and groups.

Cris Cunningham in the late 1960s. Photo by Alan Pogue /
The Rag Blog.

By Alice Embree | The Rag Blog | July 10, 2017

AUSTIN — Cris Cunningham died on June 23, 2017, in Damariscotta, Maine, from complications of Parkinson’s. She was director of the University of Texas YMCA for many years, making that space available to The Rag for its office, to documentary photographer Alan Pogue for his darkroom, to the Birth Control Counseling Project started by women on the Rag staff, to the peer counseling project WomenSpace, and to other worthy causes.

Cris was born Alice Kresensky on July 14, 1935 in Iowa. She graduated from the College of Wooster in Ohio with a B.A. in 1957 and continued postgraduate studies at New College Divinity School in Edinburgh, Scotland. She received a Master’s degree in Religious Education from New York’s Union Theological Seminary. She had an internship in India from 1961 to 1964 before moving to Austin to work with the Presbyterian Campus Ministries. In Austin, she met and married movement attorney Cam Cunningham, and they had two children, Ian and Elizabeth.

Cris was part of a faith-based social justice ministry. Like the director of the Y before her, and like Rev. Bob Breihan of the Methodist Student Center, Cris made space available to the growing social justice movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Quiet, gracious, talented musically and artistically, Cris rarely assumed center stage. She served an essential sustaining role in the lives of so many movement activists and organizations. Unfortunately, the left frequently fails to recognize its quiet heroines like Cris.

I knew Cris as a member of early women’s liberation actions.

I knew Cris as a member of early women’s liberation actions. I have a photo from a 1970 women’s celebration in the church basement that went on to house the People’s Community Clinic. Cris was also a founding member of the Women’s Health Organization, an Austin group similar in purpose to the Boston Women’s Health Collective, publishers of Our Bodies, Ourselves.

As the chairperson of the Public Affairs Forum of the First Unitarian Universalist Church, she continued to provide space for discussion of social justice concerns for many years after she left the “Y.” As televised panels, these forums have documented decades of activist history.

At a 50th college reunion, Cris met Tom Justice, who would be her partner in later life. They would spend half a year in Austin and the other half in Maine. She died peacefully in Maine with Tom by her side.

A memorial service and reception will be held for Cris at 3:00 p.m. on July 15, 2017, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin at 4700 Grover Ave., Austin, Texas 78756. Donations can be made to the Public Affairs Forum at the First UU Church in memory of Cris Cunningham. Donations can also be made in her memory to Power for Parkinsons.

[Rag Blog contributor Alice Embree is an editor of the book, Celebrating The Rag: Austin’s Iconic Underground Newspaper. Alice is a long-time Austin activist, organizer, and member of the Texas State Employees Union.]

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11 Responses to Alice Embree :
METRO | Alice Kresensky Cunningham
(July 14, 1935 – June 23, 2017)

  1. From Alan Pogue:

    Cris had a depth of understanding of the place of the University Y in the movement for social justice that was beyond the title of director/administrator. She knew the history and purpose of the University YM-YWCA better than any other director before or after her. She gathered the ashes of the old YM-YWCA at 2330 Guadalupe and produced a Phoenix, a powerhouse for justice in that humble space. I owe a lot to her insight and foresight.

    Percy, the janitor, let me put some photography equipment in the room he had his cleaning supplies in. The room had been a changing room for the larger dance room full of mirrors. The camel’s nose was in his tent. After I had set up my darkroom in the changing room he declared he did not need that much space for brooms and Bab-o. He moved his supplies into a closet in the office area.

    The 8’wide X 14’long x 11’ ceiling room had some nasty old sinks left over from when it had been a darkroom decades before. The floor was covered in sheet metal, now rusty, in case of a chemical spill and there was an unnecessary wall within the space. The wall was made of reinforced concrete. In order to demolish the wall I had to use a sledge hammer late at night because hitting the wall shook the entire building. Cris was there working later than I thought anyone would still be there and caught me at my remodeling project as she could not help but notice the walls shaking.

    She surveyed the rubble and the bed I had set up on top of the concrete shelf over the toilet and non-functioning shower stall. Since I was living in the space she asked that I pay $10 a month for electricity and water. She would say nothing to anyone else about my extensive remodeling. Later the YWCA wanted to take over my space for storage. Cris told them that my work with The Rag and other social justice organizations was much more important than storage. Cris Cunningham was my Guardian Angel.

  2. Frances Morey says:

    Chris was a most gracious, concerned humanitarian. She was kind and gentle–good natured in every way. I had not known of her religious training and education but I felt spirituality whenever I was in her presence.
    What time is the memorial event at the UU Church?

  3. Beverly Voss says:

    I got to know Cris and Tom in the past few years as she lived a block from me and they often found their way to the “Melancholy Ramblers'” gigs. I got to see paintings she’d done years earlier but had no idea of her early Austin days.

    Tom loved to tell how they became reacquainted at their 50th college reunion…”She was SO beautiful…and still is!” he said many times. “And she taught me to dance!” he marveled. They traveled, sang in a senior’s choir and enjoyed their life.

    It’s poignant that when we meet people at the end of their lives, we have so little sense of who they have been for most of their lives. So I am most appreciative of people like Alice, Alan and others who are filling in so many of the gaps.

    I’ll miss my sweet neighbor and Tom as well. Good folks.

    • Leslie C. says:

      “It’s poignant that when we meet people at the end of their lives, we have so little sense of who they have been for most of their lives.”
      So true. Recently I have had the unpleasant experience of learning about the fascinating lives of new friends from reading their obituaries in the newspaper.

  4. Leslie Cunningham says:

    I moved to Austin in middle age, and met Cris Cunningham through the First UU’s Public Affairs Forums. People often asked me if Cris and I were related. No, we were not.

    Like others, I did not know anything about her earlier life. Thanks for the article, Alice.

  5. Allison Nash says:

    Chris was a gentle soul, kind and gracious. She did so much, quietly and moved many mountains. My love to her kids, and all who loved her…

  6. Steve Speir says:

    So many times the call would go out to take the three big buckets, criss-cross the Drag and the UT campus and ask for contributions to bail people out or for whatever project needed emergency funding. The instructions were always the same: when the buckets full, take it to Cam and Cris at the Y office. If you couldn’t get $75 or so you weren’t much of a bucket man.

  7. Sarah says:

    As a friend of Cris’ daughter, I count myself so lucky to have to have known Cris for 26yrs. She had a unconditional love for all of us and loved to watch us grow up. It is little wonder that many of us are healers, teachers, and spiritual leaders now that we are in our 40s. She helped raise us. She had a nurturing presence and was always available to us all. I feel like I learned what “wise” means from knowing her. Everyone who met Cris was touched by her innate beauty and compassion. Our community and world is a better place because of her.

  8. Lois Ahrens says:

    I worked with Cris when WomenSpace was there and the Y was our home. I was also on the Y Board during many of those years. Even during many contentious meetings, Cris was always even tempered and managed to steer us through to the other side so we could all continue our work. It’s great to see the beautiful picture of her.

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