Mary Esther Cunningham

Mary Esther Johnston was born on Oct. 24, 1916 in the little house just east of the original Baptist Church on Main Street in Gardner. She passed away this week in Gardner. Services will be conduced at Bruce Funeral Home (913) 856-7111 and information will be on line.
Mary Esther was named for her grandmother Esther and an aunt Mary.
Her father, Gus, moved to Gardner when he was 42 years old. He started his life in Brooklyn, NY, the son of Lucy (Lundell) and Victor Johnston. Gus’ parents passed away when he was a young boy and he was sent to upstate New York to live with relatives. Not much is known about Gus except that as a younger man he drove a street car in Salt Lake City, Utah, for some time; however, in keeping with family tradition, he did not like the 10 percent tax the city levied against his salary prompting him to leave that job. From there he ended up in Gardner.
Her mother, Laura, was from Gardner. To that point Laura lived with her parents who came to town in 1876 and helped found the Baptist Church. The church sat on Main Street and is now an apartment building.
Mary Esther was the middle of three children. She had an older brother, Howard, and a younger sister, Ruth. The family lived in Gardner before moving for a short time to Ottawa then getting an opportunity to move to Texas when she was just seven-years old.
They moved to Texas to follow Laura’s mother, by now a widow. She married a minister who owned a farm in Texas. He needed someone to help operate the farm, so Gus moved his family south. The family stayed on the cotton farm for four years before Gus became poisoned by the bug spray used to protect the crop from boll weevils. In hindsight the move was not good for the family because cotton is a specialized crop, and her father had little know-how for the specific conditions required to raise it.
Soon after Gus healed from his poisoning, he bought a filling station in Houston in an area known as the Heights and moved the family there. Mary Esther was 11 when the family moved to Houston. According to her, the family thrived for a while until the Great Depression hit. She recalled that the Depression affected literally everyone she knew, and her family was no different. They lost the filling station, their home in Houston, as well as the home they still owned in Ottawa. When she was 18 the family packed up their Essex and moved back to Gardner.
When they arrived back in town, Laura became a phone operator to help support the family. Mary Esther began a job working for the Jetmore family as a nanny. Mr. Jetmore was a banker and Mrs. Jetmore was a designer for then-famous Nellie Don clothing out of Kansas City.
During this time Mary Esther had the good fortune to meet Bob Cunningham. She was walking the Jetmore family dog, Jimmy. Jimmy loved Mary Esther, and he went everywhere she went. As she was walking the dog, Bob pulled over and asked if she wanted a ride.
Mary Esther and Bob dated for about a year when they married on Feb. 27, 1942. Bob enlisted in the Army the following September. He attended boot camp in St. Joseph. They celebrated their first anniversary with the birth of their first daughter, Yolonda. Then Sondra came along a year later.
After that Bob shipped out for three years of war – moving around from Africa to China. He would write letters home to let Mary Esther know where he was, but they were often edited by the Army and had holes cut in them anytime he gave specific location details. Eventually Bob found himself in India where he spent six weeks in the hospital recovering from Malaria and jaundice before being discharged home.
Mary Esther continued working for the Jetmore family while Bob was serving in the military – in all she was in their employ for eight years. It was a nice job because for a time she lived with the family, even after Yolanda came along.
When Bob got back home life returned to normal. The couple lived in a small house in west Olathe, and Mary Esther took care of the kids while Bob went to work as a truck driver for Wilson. She enjoyed the arrangement because Bob’s mother worked at a restaurant, and he could go in for breakfast before starting his day.
The family enjoyed life with Bob working for Wilson and celebrated the arrival of more children. Alan, Marcia, Claudia, Brent, Rhonda, Vanessa. When Vanessa was about one, Bob and Mary Esther had the opportunity to buy the farm in Gardner near the lake. Soon after the family settled at the farm they welcomed the last of their seven daughters.
On the farm many hours were spent in the garden. Bob’s mother, Helen, would help with the kids. According to Mary Esther, Helen could really get all those kids working together to keep the garden nice. The family loved eating the things that came from the garden. It was huge and was full of delicious vegetables. In the summer the family would pick and can them. One favorite was the cherries. Family members would turn the crank on her cherry pitter for what seemed like hours but the pies and cobblers and crisps that were made from the cherries tasted just tasted like summer.
Bob always drove a truck. When Wilson moved he made the decision to keep the family in Gardner and took a job with Coca Cola. The grandkids affectionately remember the fridge on the back porch full of a variety of sodas and even treats from Hostess.
There was always a lot of activity at the farm with Cunningham kids coming and going. Mary Esther was a great hostess in that she always had a cold iced tea at the ready and would sit in the metal lawn chairs under the trees for a chat.
One visitor fondly recalled the first time she ate dinner around the large Cunningham kitchen table. She remembers the gigantic platter of fried chicken that Mary Esther sat down on the table. And then, in the blink of an eye, she recalls a flurry of hands reaching for the chicken and watching the platter empty very quickly. She learned then that you must act fast if you’re eating with the Cunninghams and you want a particular cut of meat.
Mary Esther is witty and funny – still today at 100. She does not mince words. She is kind, but she will let you know when you’ve stepped out of line. She is as spry as an 80 year old – that is a compliment for someone who is 20 years older. She is independent. She is strong and resilient. But the defining factor for Mary Esther is her deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.
Mary Esther loves her children and being a good mother is really important to her. She enjoyed the hustle and bustle of her large family. She recalled that people were often surprised to learn she was expecting and might ask incredulously, “You’re having another???” But she smiles today and says, “Now look at all the help I have. My kids are always around.”
With all those kids, I don’t think anyone would be surprised to know that she believes the biggest and best invention of her lifetime is the washing machine!
(This story was written and read by Amy Cunningham at Mary Esther Cunningham’s 100th birthday celebration. Used with permission.)