From high school basketball player to the Kentucky Supreme Court to teaching, Justice Bill Cunningham has had a long journey to becoming a professor at Murray State.
Former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham has returned to his alma mater to teach legal studies and criminal law.
“It’s been an uplifting and nostalgic trip down memory lane being on the campus of my alma mater,” Cunningham said. “It’s hardly recognizable today from what it was when I was a student. But, it is such a warm feeling every time I walk across campus and see these bright young students around me and feel all of those old ghosts of my past days here walking by my side and nodding approvingly.”
When Cunningham came to Murray State he was a 17-year-old former high school basketball player. The boy he describes as “green and immature” had no intention of pursuing the future he came into.
“To be honest, when I was a rough and tough basketball player at Benton High School if someone would have told me I was going to become a lawyer, a writer, a judge and… a professor,” Cunningham said. “I would have probably drowned myself in the Cumberland River.”
However, in his time at Murray State, Cunningham said he grew and matured significantly through his experiences. When Cunningham got involved with Greek Life, he found his niche for politics.
“My fraternity Sigma Chi forced me into campus politics where I was eventually elected student body president,” Cunningham said. “My professors there taught me how to write concisely and simply, which helped me be a better lawyer and judge I would like to thank Dr. C.S. Lowry, Dr. Howard Giles and Professor Hough. They had completely different styles but the message was the same in teaching me to analyze and then simplify, simplify, simplify.”
Since his graduation in 1962, Cunningham has taken on an array of political ventures including being a public defender, commonwealth attorney and circuit judge. He said he learned more from working in the criminal justice system than he did as a Supreme Court justice and hopes to pass this knowledge onto his students.
“I want my students to learn and appreciate the grandeur as well as the imperfections of our criminal justice system,” Cunningham said. “I want to challenge them to a profession that is filled with great challenges as well as heartbreak, but when the day is over, and you drop wearily into your bed, you can make the proudest claim of all: I worked for justice today.”
Cunningham came to work at the University under the personal invitation of President Bob Jackson. Cunningham said he had reached a point where he felt burnt out after 50 years witnessing human tragedy in the criminal justice system, and saw this invitation as a beacon of hope.
“I saw teaching as an avenue where I might once again make a difference,” Cunningham said. “I would be remiss in not saying, the entire staff of Murray State from the president down to everyone in the political science department have simply been marvelous. They have been so nice and treated me like royalty. It’s been a tonic just to be around them.”
On his journey from basketball player to professor, Cunningham has learned a lot of lessons that he hopes to teach students that that will help them achieve success.
“Just remember, you can be the richest person in the world but the size of your funeral will still depend upon the weather,” Cunningham said. “Work hard and prepare, but know that God provides signposts along the way which may lead you into areas you never expected to go.”