George Cunningham loves retirement, but his wife, Cheryl, said it makes her a little antsy.
She has been a go-getter her entire life. The Ashby area resident has taught at Eskimo village schools in Alaska. While there, she survived a plane crash. She’s delivered Bibles to people at a witch doctor’s home in Mexico. And if that wasn’t enough, she once had her wallet stolen by gypsies while traveling in Italy.
Cheryl moved with the family several times during George’s years in the military. During that time she worked as a telephone operator and supervisor. She recalls connecting servicemen in the foxholes of Vietnam with their families in the U.S.
Over the course of the couple’s 50-plus years of marriage, they’ve moved to California, Texas, North Carolina and Hawaii, plus her stay in Alaska while teaching. For the past 26 years, they’ve lived at their home on Pelican Lake. It’s where she’s chronicling her story.
Cheryl grew up in Parkers Prairie, but, when her father’s job at Honeywell called for a move to Minneapolis, she made the trek with her family to the city. It was a fateful move for her. It’s where she met George while attending high school.
He joined the Marine Corps and, while on leave, contacted Cheryl.
“He swept me off my feet,” she said with a smile.
The two married in 1969 and began their military life at Twentynine Palms, California.
It was a short stint. After his service, the couple moved to Minnesota. Some said her life experiences would make great material for a book, which has prompted her to start writing. But it’s hard to finish. Her adventures, you see, are ongoing.
George was a landscaper, but their move was made in the dead of winter, Cheryl said. They looked for work elsewhere. A move to California proved troublesome when their car broke down. They took a bus to Texas, but there were no jobs there, either. Their best option, the two decided, was for George to re-enlist. Soon they were moving to Camp Pendleton.
When he was deployed to Okinawa, Cheryl moved the family to Ramsey, Minn. to be close to family.
“Orders could come at any time,” she said. “At any time he had to pick up and pack. They don’t do it like that anymore, but at that time, they did.”
Over the next 30 years, George was stationed at Camp Pendleton, Camp LeJeune and a base in Hawaii. Each place offered something unique, Cheryl said.
“It either makes you tough or you don’t make it, because everything happens that can possibly happen,” she said. “The things you have to encounter by yourself are phenomenal. But it (the military life) makes you flexible.”
And, when George was deployed and things needed to be handled in the house or with a car, she had to do it on her own.
“You start to learn to do stuff real quick,” she added.
She found that true even when she traveled to Italy to visit George, when he was sent to Europe. It was the mid-1980s and Cheryl joined other military wives to meet their husbands for a brief trip to Nice, France. Sounds like a simple plan, but a transportation strike in France diverted the travels to Milan, Italy instead, she said.
The military prepared them for all the challenges of travel – well, almost all. “They tell you about terrorists, but they don’t tell you about the gypsies,” she said.
The couple saw the sights, and the ship George was serving on, over the next 10 days. It was a great trip, even though the area was experiencing one of its worst ice storms, she said.
But her travel adventure was just beginning. Cheryl had to travel 20 miles from her hotel to the airport. As she made her connection from a train station to a bus depot, she was surrounded by a group of gypsies.
“They were so quick,” she said. “They would pull at the comb in my hair and, just like that, they disappeared. There were people all over, but nobody said a word. They were so used to seeing that kind of thing happen.”
When she reached into her purse, Cheryl realized her wallet was gone.
To make matter worse, it happened on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and the U.S. Embassy was closed. She left a message and reported the incident. Cheryl was told she most likely would never get her wallet.
“I was told I would have to let it go,” she said. “But luckily, I didn’t lose my passport.”
She made it home, but she says the best part of the story came two months later when, back at the base, George called her.
“You better come down here,” he said.
When she arrived on base, he handed her the wallet. Everything was there just like it was when the gypsies took it, she said.
“I just thought, ‘That’s a God thing,’” she said.
Two years later, she traveled again, but this time with Key Ministries. The group was traveling to Mexico to an area hit by Hurricane Gilbert.
She spoke little Spanish, but made a connection with the people the group came in contact with, she said. The group hung a drop cloth up on the bus and showed a movie focusing on the story of Jesus.
“Hundreds came to watch,” Cheryl said. “They came barefoot to see the movie. It was amazing to see.”
Their trip included a day handing out Bibles, she said. One of the houses they came across was very quiet, and their intercessors, Spanish speaking pastors, said it was a witch doctor’s house.
They told us, “We are going to move into that area and just visit with the people until the word is given,” she said.
She describes it as a highlight of the trip which was a life-changing experience.
When George retired from the military in the 1990s, the family moved to Minneapolis. She went back to work for the telephone company, but, one phone company merged with another, and when she lost her retirement savings, she made a career move.
Cheryl kept working for the telephone company, but began taking college courses. The company helped pay for her education, Cheryl said.
She completed studies at Anoka Ramsey and transferred to Minnesota State University-Moorhead, where she graduated with an education degree.
Cheryl said she can’t remember doing it, but she must’ve indicated “anywhere” when asked where she’d teach. Soon she got a call from Alaska.
The couple had just moved a trailer to their lakeshore home when she got the call. She wasn’t interested in Alaska, but her sister reminded her that Cheryl had said she would go to the “ends of the earth.”
Her first Alaskan teaching position, that of a substitute teacher, took her to the Lower Yukon School District south of Nome. When she arrived, she discovered there were no books. There was no paper.
Cheryl became inventive as she taught fifth and sixth graders for three months. After two months, she moved to another village and taught for two months. The next school year she taught fifth grade in four villages.
She recalled traveling from one village to another on a small airplane. As it lifted off and began to turn, she realized the plane would crash. Trees broke the fall, she said. And the pilot immediately shut off the engine. As they got out of the plane and got down, they saw fuel running out of the wing.
“It never did explode,” she said. “Thankfully he had shut that motor off.”
When she got back to the village, she found a student had vandalized the classroom. Glue and cleaning fluid was poured throughout the room. Textbooks were glued together and puzzles were ruined.
“You see that pretty often,” Cheryl said. “They are pretty disturbed children. They told me that 75 percent of the kids were sexually abused.”
She was respected by the teachers and students and was named Teacher of the Year.
George visited many times during the school year and, in 2001, Cheryl returned to Minnesota. She worked at Red Lake Schools and was there when the school experienced a shooting.
She describes the healing process following the tragedy and the media frenzy that surrounded it.
“It was tough,” she said.
She returned to Alaska and taught five more years before retiring in 2010. She was asked to sub a year later and did for a brief time, but, when George suffered a second heart attack, she returned home.
In the couple’s retirement, they made treks to Texas for the winter just to relax, she said. But Cheryl was not idle for long. She started to substitute teach and has tutored.
Last summer she accomplished another first – she took part in the Prairie Wind Players production, “Smoke on the Mountain.”
She played Vera Sanders in the production, which is set in the sanctuary of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in North Carolina. Besides learning lines for the play, she also sang.
It’s another piece she will probably include in her book. She has completed 40 pages so far and has a title for the work: “To the Ends of the Earth.” A fitting title for a life she lives to the fullest.